Moldova yesterday reported widespread power outages as a result of an attack on neighboring Ukraine’s electric grid by Russia as it continues its new tactic of using the grid as a war target.
The news was no surprise to Paul Shmotolokha, CEO of New Use Energy Solutions, a US-based company that has been working to bring microgrid equipment — largely portable solar and storage — to Ukraine since the start of the war.
In the early days of the conflict, the company, along with several nonprofit partners, provided energy equipment to the war front where the destruction of buildings and infrastructure caused localized power outages.
But Shmotolokha, tied to Ukraine through family and friends, knew that the worst was still to come. “I was sitting there the whole time saying, they’re going to go after the grid. In the 21st century, you take down the grid and you hurt society.”
Psychological and physical harm
Or as Andrian Prokip of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future said in a blog, such destruction goes beyond the physical: “Besides creating immediate economic hardship and logistical problems, attacks on the power system are a powerful way to apply psychological pressure to citizens.”
Moldova, a staging ground for humanitarian aid for Ukraine, is the latest victim of the Russian attacks on the grid that began in earnest Oct. 10 with a massive missile and drone attack that heavily damaged transmission lines and caused 1.4 million Ukrainians to lose power. Microgrid advocates point to such attacks as an example of the danger of relying on centralized energy systems with a single point of failure. They can cause power outages for miles beyond the actual point of attack.
Poweroutage.com had been tracking Ukraine’s outages, but has stopped. Ukrainian officials are now classifying the data, given that it can be used by the enemy to locate vulnerabilities.
But Shmotolokha is deeply aware of what’s happening because of his frequent communications with doctors and others in the country as he tries to get solar panels, batteries, medical headlamps and other equipment to those in need.
As Lisa Cohn reported in Microgrid Knowledge’s initial story on the effort, the logistics are not easy. New Use Energy works closely with several non-government organizations, among them Direct Relief, Footprint Project, SmartAID and Zatyshne Misto to secure and distribute the equipment.
They continue to seek donations. Everything is warehoused for quick distribution as it is needed. The groups have brought in solar panels, lithium iron phosphate batteries, inverters, solar trailers and telecommunications equipment. Some of it isn’t energy related. For example, they also delivered Ipads for hospitalized children, many of them displaced because of attacks on their home cities in eastern Ukraine.
Shmotolokha said the more energy systems they provide to hospitals, the more requests they get, as medical professionals realize the value of the systems and the ease of their installation and use.
Doctors become energy experts
“There is a hospital that we work very closely with that we've given four solar generators so far. I actually sit on WhatsApp probably twice a week with — can you believe it — the doctor in charge of the emergency room and the ICU who has now become a solar expert,” Shmotolokha said.
New Use Energy focuses on commercial-grade solar that can withstand harsh conditions. Portable, the systems can be lifted by two or three people. By necessity, they also are easy to install and operate. “You punch one button and it is on,” he said.
Where work is more complex, the groups sometimes train Ukrainians, but Shmotolokha is increasingly trying to locate solar installers within the country.
Medical official shows how a donated solar energy system is keeping insulin and other medications refrigerated in Ukraine.
Tough winter ahead
Shmotolokha is worried about the winter.
He said that despite utility expertise in Ukraine, its grid is beginning to perform like that of Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela — countries whose electric service is spotty.
“The utility company is great, but there is only so much you can do if your generation goes down or a substation — there are long lead times on substation materials,” he said.
“It is going to be cold. I'm concerned about fires. I'm very concerned about portable generators. I've actually been on Twitter advising people to make sure to use them outside because you can die from carbon monoxide poisoning. Turn them off before you refuel them,” he said.
New Use Energy will hold a webinar to discuss the energy situation in Ukraine at noon EST, Nov. 30; Solar Generators in Ukraine: A Case Study on Resilience | New Use Energy