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An image of Professor Jon Gluyas

Professor Jon Gluyas, from the Durham Energy Institute, spoke at the Invest4Ukraine Forum, which took place in London this June. The Invest4Ukraine Forum highlights the opportunities available to invest in Ukrainian entrepreneurs and funds. Here Jon shares his analysis of the opportunities and possibilities for re-energizing Ukraine’s energy system.

Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has radically transformed its energy system. It has reduced its dependence on coal and increased its reliance on nuclear fission. Diversification of the source and supply of energy has been key for almost a decade, as no single fuel type makes up more than one third of the total consumption. Overall, the carbon intensity of its energy system is good and marginally better than that of the UK, with around 4.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted per person in 2021.

Ukraine planned and delivered on switching its power grid from being connected to Russia to Europe on 24 February 2022. This was a momentous change in its energy system, and it is perhaps no coincidence that this day marked the day Russia invaded Ukraine. Since that date, the Ukrainian energy infrastructure has been a major target for bombing by the Russian military.

Recently the UN put the repair bill for Ukraine’s energy infrastructure at $10 billion. The task is daunting but also provides an opportunity for Ukraine to continue its energy reforms and truly undergo an energy transition to a sustainable, secure, and affordable low-carbon energy future.

Energy mix

The most recently available figures from 2021 indicate that about 29% of Ukraine’s energy is supplied from low-carbon and renewable sources, with a reliance on nuclear fission, and 71% from fossil fuels (coal 29%, natural gas 28%, and oil 14%). These figures show a modest increase in renewables and nuclear since 2020.

With such a low current baseline for renewables, there is substantial scope for installation of onshore wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) panels for power generation and for harvesting solar thermal energy. Moreover, with a power grid now connected to the European Community, there is scope for better balancing the supply and demand for electricity compared to when they were solely connected to Russia.

Emissions reduction and intensity

Ukraine has massively reduced carbon emissions since it gained independence in 1989, from around 800 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e) in 1990 to about 200 Mt CO2e today. Most of this reduction intensity is due to a switch away from coal, which was driven by political expediency, as much of the coal in Ukraine is mined in the east from areas where Russian separatists are active.

Whilst the reduction in emissions achieved by Ukraine is spectacular, the nation remains carbon intensive in terms of gross domestic product, which is five times the EU average.

Geothermal energy and lithium extraction

There are substantial opportunities for Ukraine to develop its non-fossil fuel geoenergy. Geothermal energy is accessible anywhere on the planet, though some areas are easier to exploit than others, especially those with high geothermal gradients (hot rocks at shallow depths). There are several areas in Ukraine which have potential. The west Zakarpattia province is prime and other provinces including Poltava, Lviv, Kharkiv, Chernigiv, and Kherson all hold potential.

No assessment of the geochemistry of geothermal waters in Ukraine has taken place, but there may be potential to exploit their dissolved lithium content, which is a key commodity for rechargeable batteries.

Carbon storage and energy storage

Ukraine has a long and successful history of oil and gas production, with the main petroleum provinces occupying about one third of country. These areas demonstrate the Earth’s ability to store (petroleum) geofluids for millions of years. Old oil and gas fields and similar saline aquifer structures could also permanently store carbon dioxide or temporarily store hydrogen, compressed air, and other energy fluids including water heated by solar thermal energy.

Hydrogen and helium

Natural hydrogen, rather than manufactured, is not yet considered to be an important energy vector but might become so if current exploration activities elsewhere prove successful. Much of Ukraine is underlain by an ancient cratonic basement, one of the main potential sources for natural hydrogen, which will also likely generate helium. Helium is critical in the manufacture of low-carbon technologies, including those used in the energy industry. It is also in short supply globally and could be an important revenue source for Ukraine.

Next steps for Ukraine

Ukraine has made huge steps towards emissions reduction over the past 30 years, but it has little developed its sustainable and renewable energy industry. A superficial review of its resources suggests that it is rich in geo, wind, and solar energy potential, but a proper resource evaluation is needed.

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