oDR: Feature

The paradox threatening Ukraine’s post-coal future

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has promised to quit fossil fuels – but it is a huge challenge to transform an energy industry in the middle of a crisis

Nazarii Vivcharyk
15 December 2021, 11.47am
Chumakovskaya central coal preparation plant, Donetsk, Ukraine
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(c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

For power plant director Oleksiy Bida, a post-coal future in Ukraine is a “political decision”, he tells me as he guides me round the coal-fired power plant that powers 70% of public sector buildings and residences in the central Ukrainian city of Cherkasy.

Cherkasy, home to just shy of 300,000 people on the banks of the huge Dnipro river that runs through the country, is one of many cities that predominantly rely on coal power in Ukraine. But that could come into question with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s COP26 promise that the country, like several others, will stop using coal by 2035. How this promise will translate in practice remains to be seen - including in Cherkasy.

Bida says that his plant is ready to use natural gas instead, but that while it’s “technically possible”, it will be “unprofitable for our company and consumers, there will be a significant price rise”.

For a transition to alternative energy, Cherkasy’s power plant will need investment, according to Bida, and it already finds it difficult to source coal in Ukraine itself. The country’s mines in Donbas used to provide it, but since the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014, many of them are now in occupied territory, or flooded. “We have a situation now where we have the money for coal, but we can’t buy it,” he remarks.

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Price rises for consumers, infrastructure and supply problems, technology, investments and political will are just some of the problems on the difficult path towards Ukraine’s post-coal future. Indeed, it is hard to imagine an energy transition in a country that frequently appears to be in the midst of an energy crisis. But with Ukraine supposed to stop using coal in only 14 years, the discussion needs to begin today.

The view from Cherkasy

Ukraine is famous for its coal, or at least, it once was. The country’s mining region, Donbas, provided some of the best quality coal in the Soviet Union, and then independent Ukraine. Today, following the war in eastern Ukraine, some 39 of the mines in Donbas are flooded, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). This translates into issues with supply and quality, and they’re already being felt in Cherkasy, which has problems with pollution and low temperatures.

“The situation in Ukraine as a whole, and here in Cherkasy, is critical,” Anatoly Bondarenko, head of Cherkasy city council, stated recently. “We don’t have enough coal, and the coal that was brought in from Poland does not have the right heat value, and so our buildings are often cold.”

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The town of Cherkasy, which is the capital of Cherkasy region, is on the Dnipro river | CC BY 2.0 Oleksandr Burlaka / Flickr. Some rights reserved

Pavlo Karas, head of the town’s public energy infrastructure company, recently reported that, with the Ukrainian government’s move away from coal, Cherkasy’s coal-fired power plant will last another ten to 20 years before it is shut down. Karas’ company operates on gas, and heats a significantly smaller number of homes in town, but it does have a heating plant that could be reconstructed and put back into operation.

Yet the current problems with heating in Cherkasy seem to overshadow the long-term picture, according to Viktor Bezzubenko, the deputy mayor: “Our power plant can work with gas and coal, but they’re getting half of the coal they need right now – they need 60,000 tonnes a month, and they get 30,000. And so to keep the town warm, we have to use gas, and it’s relatively expensive.”

Indeed, Bida, says his plant actually has the funds to purchase coal, but cannot get the quality material he needs: “We’ve written to state-owned mines, we wanted to buy Ukrainian coal from Pavlohrad like before, but unfortunately we couldn’t.”

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Oleksiy Bida, head of Cherkasy's power plant | Image: Nazarii Vivcharyk

Furthermore, the introduction of new market processes in Ukraine’s energy sector is still at an early stage – and has had negative effects, says expert Viktor Kurtev. “The system is not only out of balance technically, it’s also out of balance financially,” he says, pointing to significant debts between Ukrainian energy companies. “The energy management system has been destroyed, and we’re not just talking about oligarchs here. It’s also the government’s responsibility.”

President Zelenskyy, for his part, recently called on Ukrainian businesses and the media to stop spreading news about supply problems for coal and gas. “At some point our angelic patience will end,” he said, “and for some a hellish period will begin.”

openDemocracy asked Ukraine’s Ministry of Energy for its position on the country’s commitment to stop using coal. The ministry said that Ukraine’s commitment to a gradual phase-out “did not contain strict obligations and does not mean a radical refusal of coal”, but that it would lead to “a dialogue between governments, businesses and local authorities about moving away from coal in a sustainable and economically inclusive manner”.

That, the ministry said, would mean an end to the “uncompensated use of coal for energy production”.

More coal for a post-coal future

In effect, Ukraine is facing a paradox: on the one hand, the country badly lacks coal to run its power plants – and on the other, it needs to prepare for a situation where it needs radically less coal than it does now. That is, if it’s going to meet its 2035 phase-out target and the president’s target of climate neutrality by 2060.

Outside Cherkasy, there are faint signs of possible solutions to the energy crisis – although they are out of step with central government commitments. The city of Vatutine, home to roughly 15,000 people and some 100km from Cherkasy, is about to mark 25 years since its coal mines were closed, although as local residents tell me, there is still reason to consider reopening them.

Although the city had its own coal mine complex, it lacked the quality of Donbas coal, and so Vatutine also operated a coal briquette factory, says Vasyl Cherkashyn, a miner with two decades of experience. These briquettes were not only used to heat the city, but also the villages outside it. Since the mines were closed in the late 1990s, “they have collapsed or flooded, and the briquette factory has been disassembled for scrap”.

The Ukrainian government’s plans for new energy generation are important – but until they’re implemented, they are still just that: plans

Although the Cherkasy region had its own coal reserves, it eventually switched to Russian gas as a principal source of energy, which was heavily advertised at the time, says Yuri Hromovskyi, a former regional council deputy, who was born in Vatutine. “At the beginning, it was okay, because [Russian] gas was cheaper. But then we started to discuss, shouldn’t we go back to mining coal somewhere nearby? After all, we’re still importing coal from South America and so on.”

On a smaller scale, the village of Stepantsy, further north of Cherkasy, is experimenting with alternatives to coal. To deal with its own heating problems, the village now produces its own heating pellets from the surrounding woods.

“The pellet price now gets to around 6,000 hryvnya [about $220] per tonne. That’s cheaper than gas or electricity,” says Volodymyr Mitsuk, head of the Cherkasy region’s association of territorial communities, who recently called on village administrations in the region to move to alternative forms of energy.

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Heating station at Belozersk community, Cherkasy region | Source: Belozersk village council

Oleksandr Yaremenko, head of Stepantsy village, tells me that while pellets do not cover heating needs for the whole village – they still have to use gas and coal – this year they shifted focus to self-made fuels, given the problems with coal and gas supply. Ahead of the next heating season in 2022, he says the village is working on transferring public sector facilities to alternative fuels.

Elsewhere in the region, there are 33 solar power facilities and 13 small hydropower plants, although with some of the solar power stations connected to Ukraine’s national power grid, they do not meet the region’s needs. “For some people this is business or just additional financial support. Those who have extra energy sell it to the centre and receive money for it,” says Serhiy Chuban, infrastructure director at Cherkasy regional administration.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Ministry of Energy has stated that it is working on increasing the country’s atomic energy capacity and integrating alternative energy. Indeed, it now plans to build new nuclear power generators according to its own plans, along with the US company Westinghouse. Included in these plans is the town of Orbita in the Cherkasy region, which is home to an unfinished reactor.

Thus, while energy prices keep rising – and Ukrainians keep facing fuel poverty – Ukraine is left waiting for new coal supplies and energy imports from Belarus. The Ukrainian government’s plans for new energy generation are important – but until they’re implemented, they are still just that: plans.

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