Emergency teams risk their lives and brave subfreezing temperatures to keep the power on
By Alistair MacDonald
Jan. 11, 2023
The Wall Street Journal
The workers clambering over the charred remains of an electricity transformer at a Ukrainian power station are fighting on one of the war’s most important fronts: protecting Ukraine’s power grid. Russia has targeted Ukraine’s electricity supply with a blitz of drones and missiles, leaving businesses struggling and millions of people with sporadic heat and light in subzero temperatures.
Rushing to rebuild the network are crews of engineers and others who work long and dangerous hours. At least 10 have died on the job since October, when the Russian barrages started, and energy workers are feted as heroes by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and average Ukrainians alike. “We are a battalion of electricians,” said Volodymyr Ovdei, a 64-year-old worker.
Late last month, a Russian missile slammed into the ground near the power station, one of Ukraine’s largest, shredding power cables and knocking out a transformer, which converts electrical energy for transport and use in homes and businesses. That part of the power station had the capacity to generate enough electricity to power 57,000 small apartments.
The coal-and-gas-powered station, owned by DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private energy generator, has been hit on three separate occasions in recent weeks.
Repair crews face the constant threat of bombardment and head into one of the plant’s two shelters when air-raid warnings sound. When out repairing more distant parts of the grid, workers take cover where they can, such as under bridges. Closer to the front lines, some wear body armor and need military escorts. Workers have triggered mines and been hit by explosions and falling debris. They form tight bonds under pressure, and some workers have come out of retirement to replace the hundreds who have joined the armed forces.
Teams of around nine plan to work in three shifts over 24 hours to dismantle the transformer and replace it. But the country is running out of the parts needed, and is scouring the world for replacements to the mainly Soviet technology being destroyed. “Of course it’s dangerous, they work at the very edge of a power station,” said a senior engineer, as he watched the team dismantle the transformer’s blackened remains.
Some additional security measures have been taken to protect the plant from further attacks, including installing large concrete blocks to shield equipment.
Russian strikes targeting energy infrastructure, which began in October, have caused outages and forced rolling blackouts across the country as workers race to repair damage. On Monday, around 2.1 million households across the country were cut off from electricity, down from a high of 6 million on Nov. 23.
Ukraine’s electricity is generated by nuclear energy—which in winter typically produces up to 60% of the country’s power—as well as coal, gas and renewable sources. The electricity is then sent out on high-voltage transmission lines to be transformed at local substations into a lower voltage that can be distributed to nearby businesses and homes.
Russia has hit all parts of that chain and Ukraine is running out of the parts to fix it. At the coal-and-gas-fired power station, a separate group worked next to a second transformer that was also recently destroyed. It was made in the 1960s and will be hard to replace, the senior engineer said.
Europe and the U.S. use equipment that operates to different parameters, making it harder to offer replacements to Ukraine. Ukraine’s power grid, for instance, transmits volts of up to 750,000, whereas grids in the rest of Europe are typically capped at 400,000 volts.
Last month, Japan’s Hitachi Energy Ltd. donated 52 transformers that it had manufactured in Poland. CEZ Group, the Czech energy company, donated more than 30 pieces of old equipment, including transformers.
Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, has been a focus of Russian attacks on the electrical grid. “Nobody has ever said, I am scared, I cannot go,” he said.
At the start of the war, as Russian forces reached the outskirts of Kyiv, Mr. Toyunda didn’t see his own family for three weeks, and slept in the office.
On Nov. 23, during what Mr. Toyunda described as the most damaging attack on the grid so far, Russian strikes shut down around 70% of Ukraine’s energy capacity. Mr. Toyunda spent 48 hours working without sleep in rain and snow to fix four high-voltage cables that bring electricity into Kyiv.
Missile debris had damaged the cables in 30 separate places. New cable replaced two of those lines within six hours, reinstalling the power that pumps water around Kyiv, a city of around 3 million. “Electricity is hospitals, it’s heating, it’s water, it’s communication,” said Oleh Braharnyk, a 54-year-old senior manager on the team.
On a recent day in Kyiv, this crew of nine, ranging in age from 22 to 71, were cutting the tops of trees that posed a risk to cables. As an air raid warning sounded, Mr. Toyunda said this sort of everyday maintenance was no less essential during wartime. Mr. Toyunda is on call 24 hours a day and always keeps his phone switched on. He no longer drinks alcohol so he is ready at all times, he said.
Mr. Toyunda, 41, is from a part of eastern Ukraine now occupied by Russia. He worked for several years in and around the port city of Mariupol, which fell to Russian control in May after weeks of bombardment. Mr. Toyunda hired two former colleagues from the city for his own team. Roman Horbatyuk, 39, worked on fixing Mariupol’s grid under fire until late March. Mr. Horbatyuk said he went to work with armed soldiers, who would make him lie down when Russian shells landed nearby. Wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet, he worked on cherry pickers and up transmission towers, making him a target for Russian fire. “I closed my eyes [to it] and just got on with work,” he said.
Workers in Kyiv ignored loud explosions in the distance, which one crew member said were related to mine clearance north of the city. Staff could warm themselves in a large truck, with its own stove and large flask of coffee. They worked fast amid the silver birch and rusted transformer towers, stopping to smoke and talk only when the job was finished.
On Christmas Eve, the Kyiv team found out that a DTEK colleague had been killed while working. Crew members said such deaths motivate them further.
Ukrainians are now acknowledging a profession that doesn’t typically attract much attention.
Vehicles move aside to let DTEK’s vans pass, as they would for ambulances and the police. People approach workers to thank them, buying them coffee and hot food when they are out working. Mr. Horbatyuk says his children are now proud of the work he does. “Finally, people in Ukraine respect the electrical workers,” he said.