Ukraine Bets on Wind Power, Which Missiles Can’t Damage as Easily

ODESA, Ukraine — The giants catch the wind with their huge arms, helping to keep the lights on in Ukraine — newly built windmills on plains along the Black Sea.

In 15 months of war, Russia has launched countless missiles and exploding drones at power plants, hydroelectric dams and substations, trying to black out as much of Ukraine as it can, as often as it can, in its campaign to pound the country into submission. The new Tyligulska wind farm stands only a few dozen miles from Russian artillery, but Ukrainians say it has a crucial advantage over most of the country’s grid.

A single, well-placed missile can damage a power plant severely enough to take it out of action, but Ukrainian officials say that doing the same to a set of windmills, each one hundreds of feet apart from any other, would require dozens of missiles. A wind farm can be temporarily disabled by striking a transformer substation or transmission lines, but these are much easier to repair than power plants.

“It is our response to Russians,” said Maksym Timchenko, the chief executive of DTEK Group, the company that built the turbines, in the southern Mykolaiv region, the first phase of what is planned as Eastern Europe’s largest wind farm. “It is the most profitable and, as we know now, most secure form of energy.”

Ukraine has had laws in place since 2014 to promote the transition to renewable energy, both to lower dependence on Russian energy imports and because it was profitable. But that transition still has a long way to go, and the war makes its prospects — like everything else about Ukraine’s future — murky.

In 2020, 12 percent of Ukraine’s electricity came from renewable sources, barely half the percentage for the European Union. Plans for the Tyligulska project call for 85 turbines producing up to 500 megawatts of electricity, enough for 500,000 apartments — an impressive output for a wind farm, but less than 1 percent of the country’s prewar generating capacity.

After the Kremlin began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the need for new power sources became acute. Russia has bombarded Ukraine’s power plants and cut off delivery of the natural gas that fueled some of them.

Russian occupation forces have seized a large part of the country’s power supply, ensuring that its output does not reach territory still held by Ukraine. They hold the single largest generator, the 5,700-megawatt Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which has been damaged repeatedly in fighting and has stopped transmitting energy to the grid. They also control 90 percent of Ukraine’s renewable energy plants, which are concentrated in the southeast.

The postwar recovery plans Ukraine has presented to the European Union — which it hopes to join — and other supporters includes a major new commitment to clean energy.

“The war speeded us up,” said Hanna Zamazeeva, the head of the Ukrainian government’s energy efficiency agency, which supported the construction of the wind farm.

But energy and economic analysts say much of the hoped-for green transition will have to wait until after reconstruction begins and foreign investment returns, and could depend on Ukrainian success on the battlefield.

“Developing renewables, particularly wind and solar, depends on Ukraine successfully recapturing these territories” now held by Russia, the Center for Strategic and International Studies reported in December. “The level of destruction across these regions could impede any new investment or development, as enabling infrastructure such as roads and grid networks may need to be rebuilt. Current installations may also have been damaged.”

Southern Ukraine’s potential for wind power was clear at the project’s opening ceremony this month when hot, dry air gusted through a wheat field dotted with huge turbines. Amid snack-covered tables, their linens flapping in the wind, the gathered diplomats and journalists had to turn their backs to the blowing dust.

The three-bladed turbines at Tyligulska, made by the Danish company Vestas, are huge, carving circles in the air more than 500 feet in diameter. Each windmill weighs about 800 tons.

The first turbine was built in February 2022, the month the invasion began, and then DTEK froze construction. But in August, Evheniy Moroz, the company’s site manager, received a call from his director, who asked if they could resume work without international contractors, who had all evacuated, taking their heavy equipment with them.

“I started calling the guys I worked with to find out where they are, what contractors are still operating, and whether there are any cranes able to lift 100 tons still in Ukraine,” Mr. Moroz said.

He found just one, and it needed renovation, but this crane was the only hope. The builders modified the crane for the job and started calling it their “little dragon.” With it, construction restarted.

Builders worked in open fields about 60 miles from the front lines, hiding in a bunker when air-raid sirens sounded. Missiles fired from Russian ships in the Black Sea roared overhead but did not target the site. Cruise missiles flew lower than the turbines, trying to evade radar detection by Ukrainian air defenses.

They are a modest step toward energy security and a green transition, but the new windmills mean something more immediate for Ukraine, said Vitaliy Kim, the governor of the Mykolaiv region.

“The construction of this wind power plant is a sort of a signal that it is possible to build during the war,” he said. “Such projects have to exist for the independence of our country.”

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