Ukraine and neighboring Moldova have synchronized their power grids with mainland Europemeaning electricity could now in theory flow between the two countries and through a grid that stretches across the EU to the UK and could one day connect to North Africa.
It was a delicate and difficult task – the frequency of the two electrical systems must be perfectly aligned in order to avoid sudden surges or blackouts – which was accelerated by the invasion. What would normally have taken a year happened in weeks.
But more than just a technical integration of systems and capabilities, electrical alignment is also a strategic political alignment not far from the level of EU membership.
Indeed, Russia’s invasion has opened a discussion across Europe and beyond about how and where countries source their energy. For some, the answer is energy independence. In the UK, the tastes of Net Zero Review Group argue that the country needs to reopen oil wells and restart fracking to reduce its dependence on energy supplies from abroad.
However, the politics of energy systems is not so simple. In the United States, Texas has long been immune to energy disasters that have affected other states because it operates its own power grid, separate from others. But in 2021, when three successive storms destroyed crucial infrastructure, 4.5 million homes and businesses were left without power and a about 700 people died. Since it was unable to import power from unaffected states, Texas could do nothing but wait for the storms to pass and rebuild.
Supply and demand must match
While the issue of power generation is garnering a lot of attention as energy prices soar, there is a risk that the politicization of energy is overshadowing the practical issues of energy supply and generation. ‘electricity. There are two key issues here.
First of all, what do you do when the demand for electricity exceeds the supply of electricity? This happens when, for example, the nation collectively decides to have a cup of tea at the same time after a major sporting event – the so-called “television pick-up effect”. After England played against Germany at Euro 2020, national grid saw UK electricity demand increase by 1.6 gigawatts (enough to power around 320 million light bulbs and 888,000 kettles).
Second, what do you do when you have generated more electricity than consumers want to consume? Many generators, such as large fossil fuel power plants, cannot be turned on and off quickly. They continue to generate electricity even if no one wants to use it. Yet demand can suddenly drop by up to 20%, meaning a power grid has to do something with the extra electricity.
There have been some attempts to address these issues, either through regulations such as the requirement low consumption appliances or through market-based measures such as dynamic pricing and the Economy 7 service, which offers reduced rates for electricity during the nightbut these efforts have struggled.
But the answer to both questions is to make connections to other electrical systems. This is a practical necessity which means that no matter who supplies the electricity, a country cannot truly shut itself off as some might wish. The real question is who it connects with.
The UK, for example, despite talks of energy independence, has built many undersea ‘interconnect’ cables that connect the national grid to others like Norway, France and the Netherlands. . Other cables are planned, including ElecLink, a privately funded connection between the UK and France.
These connectors mean that when the UK does not produce enough electricity, particularly when the wind is not blowing, it can import electricity from abroad. In 2020, 9% of UK electricity passed through its interconnections. Similarly, when the UK produces too much electricity, it can be traded overseas.
At a time when much of Ukraine’s infrastructure is literally under attack, it’s hard to compare the decision of the UK and Ukraine to connect to European energy networks. Yet the decisions of both countries are ultimately based on the recognition that energy independence involves tough choices about who to work with. History, ideology, technology, economics and ultimately realpolitik come into play.
The war in Ukraine is of course far more destructive and difficult to predict than even the worst winter storm in the UK or the most sudden surge in demand. But the principle of network connections is the same. Connecting Ukraine’s power grid to Europe offers both a mechanism to maintain energy supplies throughout the region and a new form of aid to a beleaguered neighbor.
This might not guarantee energy security, as critical infrastructure can still be attacked and lights can still go out in Ukrainian cities. But it is proof of political solidarity and a strengthening of ties between Ukraine and the EU.
Outside of Ukraine, this decision shows us that electricity cannot be separated from politics. Energy policy must go beyond easy answers and false promises.