European Commission HQ lit with Ukraine flag

View from Brussels: EU reacts to crisis with record speed

Image credit: European Union 2022

Ukraine and Moldova’s electricity grids were successfully hitched up to the EU’s on Wednesday, as regulators reportedly did a full year of work in just two weeks. It shows that, given a good crisis, Brussels can leap into action when it wants to.

Ukraine’s government has wanted to integrate its power systems – both literal and figurative – with the EU’s for a number of years now. It is in fact part of the rationale behind Vladimir Putin’s unlawful and brutal invasion of Russia’s southwestern neighbour.

But the meshing together of the continental electricity grid with Ukraine’s was seen as a long-term project. Regulators on both sides had a lot of work to do beforehand with testing and upgrading infrastructure that has been in place since the Soviet era.

The EU in particular did not want to rush the process in case Ukraine's huge grid caused problems from the rest of the system.

War changes everything though, and this week Europe’s association of network transmission operators (ENTSO-E) announced that the work was already complete and that Ukraine’s grid has been synchronised.

It is a remarkable turnaround whichever way you look at it. A couple of weeks ago, Ukraine’s network operator successfully tested ‘island mode’, disconnecting the grid from Russia’s and running the system in isolation.

That prompted ENTSO-E, with strong political backing from the European Union which understandably wants to do everything within its actual power to help Ukraine, to double its efforts and get the work done.

EU energy chief Kadri Simson said that “this will help Ukraine to keep their electricity system stable, homes warm and lights on during these dark times. It is also a historic milestone for the EU-Ukraine relationship – in this area, Ukraine is now part of Europe.”

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has requested membership of both the EU and Nato, welcomed that Ukraine is now a member of the EU’s energy union.

Ukraine’s precarious power situation was fully revealed last week when Russian military operations in and around the former site of the Chernobyl plant cut off the electricity supply to a storage facility for radioactive waste that houses material from the nuclear disaster.

Government officials warned that if power was not restored within 48 hours, the depot would no longer be able to contain the radiation emitted by the waste and it could spread to the surrounding area and beyond, if the prevailing wind conditions were just right.

Although grid synchronisation would not help in that particular situation, power supplies from the west do take the pressure off of Ukraine slightly as its defence against Russia’s military forces continues. 

Moldova’s grid too was incorporated into the continental European network after its regulators also requested an accelerated synchronisation procedure as Russia’s potential future aggression might target the Eastern European country.

In both cases, the EU might stand to benefit as a whole in the long run, as Ukraine in particular is seen as a perfect place to develop a massive renewable energy sector, and a synched-up grid means that surplus power can be exported.

In a post-war world, a country that is called the bread-basket of Europe might become the clean-energy provider of Europe. 

EU energy boss Kadri Simson hails from Estonia, where the next grid developments might take place. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are all still incorporated into an isolated electricity network that was once a part of the old Soviet grid.

Since 2007, Baltic government leaders have worked towards cutting off that link and joining up with the continental grid, as opposed to the Nordic grid to the north-west. That coupling is scheduled for 2025 but may yet be accelerated.

The crisis is turbocharging a lot of the EU’s business, whether it be directly or indirectly. Negotiations on the EU’s digital market rules may wrap up early in the next few days, and government ministers this week agreed to back a plan for a carbon border tax.

Vladimir Putin’s great talent may not lie in military strategy or geopolitical manoeuvring, rather in playing the role of the bogeyman that Europe needs to get its act together and agree on some important policies.

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