For over a year now, the world has had its eyes on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Starting in October 2022, a wave of targeted attacks on Ukraine’s electricity grid led to thousands of homes across the country losing power — with a brutal winter ahead of them.  

Our fourth season of Direct Current opens with an episode about the joint efforts between the United States and Ukraine in the race to repair critical power infrastructure under siege. We spoke with those up close and personal with the operation – and bring to you a story of how industry leaders, engineers, and two allied governments came together to save lives.

Featured in this Episode

  • Andrew Light – Assistant Secretary of Energy for International Affairs 
  • Mara Winn – Deputy Director for the Preparedness, Policy, and Risk Analysis (PPRA) division of the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER) 
  • Mike White – Maritime Advisor for the National Security Directorate at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory 
U.S. Department of Energy

(UPBEAT MUSIC WITH STRINGS PLAYS)

MATT DOZIER: Hello, Direct Current listeners! Welcome to season 4 of the podcast. I’m your host, Matt Dozier, and I am so pleased to introduce you to my new co-host, Sarah Harman. Hi, Sarah!

SARAH HARMAN: Hello listeners! Thank you for the introduction, Matt. I’m excited to be here co-hosting with you.

MATT DOZIER: You may already be familiar with Sarah’s work — she’s the one who creates our amazing episode artwork. And this season, she’ll be joining me behind the microphone.

SARAH HARMAN: Yeah, and we’ve got some really great stories coming up. From climate modeling and extreme weather, to the “Battery Revolution,” to energy and resilience in Puerto Rico.

MATT DOZIER: And today, we’ve got a story for you about Ukraine — how the Ukrainians have persevered through a brutal invasion, and how the Department of Energy has helped them keep the lights on in the face of constant attacks.

SARAH HARMAN: Stay tuned. 

(DIRECT CURRENT THEME PLAYS)

(DRAMATIC MUSIC WITH VIOLIN PLAYS)

SARAH HARMAN: It’s October 2022, eight months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And the forces commanded by Vladimir Putin have a new target.

(SFX: FIGHTER JETS SCREAMING OVERHEAD)

MATT DOZIER: A series of missile and drone strikes on Ukraine’s power grid begins — not on the heavily defended power plants that supply the country’s electricity, but on the infrastructure that connects those plants to its 43 million people. 

SARAH HARMAN: Transmission lines, substations, transformers — over the span of just a few months, hundreds of attacks knock out piece after piece of Ukraine’s electric grid. And its cities start to go dark.

(MUSIC FADES DOWN)

ANDREW LIGHT: So the situation on the ground in Ukraine has been very, very difficult, especially starting in the fall on their electricity grid, when the Russians started a sustained, methodical — I would describe it as, in fact, a diabolical attack — on their electricity grid.

MATT DOZIER: That’s Andrew Light, assistant secretary of energy for international affairs.

ANDREW LIGHT: It's forced this, frankly, humanitarian crisis, where, because the Russians are targeting the nodes on the grid and the transmission as opposed to the actual electricity generation... When that happens, you can get the collapse of water systems, heating systems, sewage systems, all the kinds of things that really are needed to make a city livable. And so I see what's been done here with these attacks on the grid as very much attacks that are aimed at the civilian population, as much as anything else.

(MUSIC SWELLS)

MATT DOZIER: Let’s rewind. 

(SFX: SOUND OF REWINDING TAPE)

MATT DOZIER: Back to before the attacks on Ukraine’s grid... back even to before the Russian invasion began. The Department of Energy’s relationship with Ukraine actually started years ago. National Lab experts consulted on the Chernobyl disaster back in the 1990s, and more recently when cyberattacks put Ukraine’s grid in jeopardy.

SARAH HARMAN: In fact, Secretary Granholm’s first international trip as Secretary of Energy was to Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, in August 2021. Andrew was a part of that delegation.

ANDREW LIGHT: We had only, I think, 10 days or so to prepare for this trip. And we had to do a crash course in the current state of the energy situation in Ukraine — how Russia had been continuing in a series of moves to mess around with Ukrainian energy supply.

MATT DOZIER: Secretary Granholm and Ukrainian Energy Minister Haluschchenko talked about the security of Ukraine’s energy grid, and the potential for Ukraine — with its fleet of nuclear power plants and hydropower resources — to become a clean energy exporter.

SARAH HARMAN: And they talked about plans for a major shift: Ukraine was going to disconnect from Russia’s electric grid, and synchronize with the European grid instead.

ANDREW LIGHT: I have to say, over a course of just a few days there, we learned a lot. And we came away from that experience, number one, closer to the Ukrainians — committed to the idea of getting them desynchronized from Russia and synchronized with the European energy system. And this is well before the first soldier had crossed the cross the border into Ukraine. We came away very convinced that that Russia was in a position where they could manipulate energy markets, certainly in Europe on the gas side, and potentially might even choose to do so in a broader global context.

(DRAMATIC ORCHESTRAL MUSIC PLAYS)

MATT DOZIER: In the months that followed, the two agencies stayed in close contact. Ukraine moved ahead with its plan to switch over to the European grid. They made preparations for a trial run, called an “islanding test,” that would disconnect their power system from Russia — putting them “on an island,” electrically speaking.

SARAH HARMAN: The date for that test was set for February 24th, 2022.

(MUSIC SWELLS)

SARAH HARMAN: The day the Russians invaded.

(SFX: CLIPS OF RUSSIAN INVASION NEWS REPORTS)

MATT DOZIER: With Russian forces advancing, the Ukrainians made the call to push forward with the islanding test. Despite having to evacuate their control room partway through, they managed to pull it off, followed by an emergency synchronization with the EU grid. And for a while, the energy situation in Ukraine stayed relatively stable.

SARAH HARMAN: But eventually, as the invasion stalled, and Russia encountered setbacks like a failed assault on the Ukrainian capital, the focus of the war changed. The invaders went looking for softer targets, something that would damage the nation’s will to fight, as much as its defenses.

MATT DOZIER: And in October, with the bitterly cold Ukrainian winter just around the corner, an onslaught of rockets and bombs began severing many of the key connections bringing light and heat to homes around the country.

ANDREW LIGHT:  At that point, the Ukrainians reached out for help. There was a direct call between Minister Halushchenko and Secretary Granholm. At this point, they formed a very important relationship there, I was very close with my counterparts in the Ukrainian energy ministry. They said we need help. We need help. We need emergency high voltage electricity equipment. This is a request that went out to many countries. In the Department of Energy, we were able to find some resources to immediately begin trying to find equipment that the Ukrainians needed in the United States, working with partners in the private sector, trying to find equipment, procure it, and then get it transported as quickly as possible as we could to Ukraine.

(PENSIVE MUSIC WITH STRINGS PLAYS)

MATT DOZIER: Sounds simple enough, right? Get a list of equipment Ukraine needs to fix its damaged grid, gather the parts, and ship them over.... 

SARAH HARMAN: Well, not so fast.

ANDREW LIGHT: It was absolutely not simple. So it turned out to be much harder than I could have anticipated it would be.

SARAH HARMAN: First of all, where are you going to get all of this equipment from? As it turns out, demand is high for electrical grid components — especially big-ticket items like high-voltage transformers. So there weren’t exactly big stockpiles of it sitting around.

MARA WINN: One of the things that we recognized is when Ukraine utilities compiled a list of equipment that they needed, you can't just go and buy this stuff very easily, especially specialty grid equipment. It's just not available. The companies that make it have six-, nine-month, two-year lead times.

(MUSIC FADES OUT)

MATT DOZIER: Mara Winn is the deputy director of CESER, the Energy Department’s Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response. She joined DOE in August 2022 and dove straight into the Ukraine relief effort when its grid came under attack in October.

SARAH HARMAN: So with a limited supply of equipment available, made even more limited by COVID and the ever-present “global supply chain issues,” Mara and her team went to the folks most likely to have what Ukraine needed: the electric power industry.

MARA WINN: Industry immediately said, “Yes, we want to be there. We want to support, we will put our resources on to a tiger team.” And when I say they wanted it, I mean, I have COOs and CEOs of the top utilities across the nation, there was complete industry commitment, people who can make decisions and drive change and are experienced leaders.

SARAH HARMAN: I love that term, “tiger team.” (TIGER ROARS)

MATT DOZIER: I know, right? So the tiger team (TIGER ROARS) met under the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, which is basically a forum for the federal government to talk to electric companies, utilities, manufacturers and other players in the electricity sector.

MATT DOZIER: And together with the National Labs, the Department of Defense and representatives from Ukraine’s energy ministry, this big group started to work out what exactly they could pull together based on a master list of parts needed to patch up Ukraine’s grid — even as airstrikes continued to knock out new sections weekly. 

MARA WINN: Ukraine has proven that they are very agile with making fixes and tweaks in order to keep their grid going. It's been quite impressive. I've been on some calls with experts who are just amazed at like the — we joke — the gum and duct tape that they've been able to use to keep something, you know, stable and going is just an engineering miracle.

(CONTEMPLATIVE MUSIC WITH PIANO AND STRINGS PLAYS)

SARAH HARMAN: “Chewing gum and duct tape” was only going to get them so far — what they really needed was supplies. But their knack for working with whatever was available came in handy as the Ukrainians and their American counterparts hammered out the technical details of the list.

SARAH HARMAN: It was clear from the start that not everything the U.S. could provide was going to plug neatly into the Ukrainian grid. For example, Ukraine operates on a totally different frequency than the U.S. — 50 hertz versus 60 hertz, respectively.

MIKE WHITE: Maybe five percent of those 60 hertz transformers that actually exist right now could be compatible or modified to be compatible in Ukraine. And there aren't a whole lot of them just sitting around waiting to be picked up and shipped across the world.

MATT DOZIER: That’s Mike White from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He was one of the people who oversaw weeks of back-and-forth discussions, engineer to engineer, as both sides tried to make sure that any equipment sent across the Atlantic would actually be usable.

(MUSIC FADES OUT)

MATT DOZIER: Mike compared it to buying Christmas gifts. The last thing they wanted to do was send something the Ukrainians would have absolutely no use for.

MIKE WHITE: We wanted to send them things they need that would work. We didn't want them to go, “Oh, gee, thanks for the fruitcake.” You know, and that's what those conversations were about on the phone beforehand, and the team's calls and the Zoom calls and everything we did want to make sure that we're getting would work.

SARAH HARMAN: Mike said those discussions were almost unbelievably complex, with the added challenge of translating technical language between English and Ukrainian. And through it all, there were constant reminders of the imminent danger on one end of the call.

MIKE WHITE: You know, it came home during a conversation with the Ukrainians, and they stopped and they looked at their phones — that's how they get air raid warnings — and they said, “Oh, it's an air raid. But that's okay. We can keep talking. Because we're at home. If we were at work, we'd have to go down to the shelter and reconnect from there.”

(OMINOUS ORCHESTRAL MUSIC PLAYS)

MIKE WHITE: And that was one of those sobering moments where we went, wow, you know, this is this isn't theoretical. This is very real.

MATT DOZIER: The two sides kept talking as the weeks went by, the Ukrainians working around air raids and through rolling blackouts as their damaged grid strained under the load.

(SFX: DISTANT FIGHTER JET AND EXPLOSION)

MARA WINN: So by early to mid-November, we had enough confidence in a list to say to industry, “We’ve reached out to manufacturers, here's what manufacturers can get us. These are things manufacturers can't get us. Can you look in your inventories to see anything that you might have that's excess of what you need in your inventories?”

(MUSIC FADES OUT)

MARA WINN: So clearly, we do not want to put the US infrastructure at risk, that would be the last thing that we need. So we don't want somebody to say, “Well, I only have one of these left, and if I don't have it, our grid is going to go down.” That was clearly not the intent. So we're very careful about that.

MATT DOZIER: Those concerns aside, the industry came through — with large quantities of precious grid components, ready to be delivered to Ukraine.

SARAH HARMAN: Which, of course, is easier said than done, right? We’re talking massive transformers, rolls of cable, circuit breakers and switch racks — all oddly shaped and challenging to pack for a transatlantic flight.

MATT DOZIER: For that, the Department of Energy turned to the Department of Defense. DoD logistics teams gathered the first batch of equipment at a base in South Carolina, then began the painstaking process of loading it onto C17 cargo planes bound for Poland.

MARA WINN: Some of these pieces of equipment are like the size of my entire office. They have to fit on these long crates — I called it the “Tetris of the C17s,” was what they played in December. Where you had the DoD logisticians talking to our experts, because these things are not like a square box, right? They're crated, they have to be protected, they have funky shapes coming out. And so they had to find the safest way to crate them on a very shaky aircraft, so that they could be transported to Poland.

(ENERGETIC MUSIC WITH STRINGS PLAYS)

SARAH HARMAN: And despite everything working against this mission, despite all the places things could have broken down or gone sideways — it worked!

MIKE WHITE: The equipment landed in Poland, and it was in Ukraine the next day. And it was put to use very quickly. So that was really validating for the team. And in subsequent flights, you know, there were some tweaks being made, but we were very confident that anything we get over there is going to get where it needs to be and work.

MATT DOZIER: Three shipments in total were delivered to Ukraine between December 2022 and April 2023, and they had an immediate impact on the stability of the Ukrainian grid. 

MATT DOZIER: I asked Mike White what success looked like for this emergency relief effort.

MIKE WHITE: Bluntly put, you know, part of it is keeping the lights on and keeping the the central heating plants working. So, I mean, success is nobody freezes to death. That's the stakes here. And they got through the winter. You know, there's another winter right around the corner there. So there's a lot of work that still has to happen.

SARAH HARMAN: Of course, the war is still going on, and more will need to be done to keep Ukraine’s grid up and running. In some ways, this mission was just a drop in the bucket… but it also *saved lives.* 

(MUSIC SWELLS)

SARAH HARMAN: And everyone we spoke to for this story echoed a similar sentiment: this work really matters.

MIKE WHITE: It's very meaningful work. It's an opportunity that I think comes once in a career in the National Laboratory system to work on something that's this impactful. I think it's work the Department can be proud of, and the laboratory enterprise should be as well. There's been a lot of people putting a lot of effort into this from here and Idaho National Lab in particular. And I think I think every one of us is going to walk away knowing this was important work.

ANDREW LIGHT: It is, frankly, one of the most emotional things I've ever been involved in, certainly in professional life.

MATT DOZIER: Andrew said it also served as a signal from the international community that the people of Ukraine hadn’t been forgotten.

ANDREW LIGHT: I just see that we have come together as a government, we've come together as a community of nations in a way that is incredibly powerful. And we proved that we could respond.

(MUSIC FADES OUT)

SARAH HARMAN: Mind you, none of this would have been possible without the long-standing relationships and lines of communication between DOE, the national labs, industry, and other partners in the U.S. and abroad.

MARA WINN: Yeah, it is pretty impressive. I am very thankful to be surrounded by very smart people who know what they're doing. And that is the beauty of this cross-functional team effort. You had industry people at the table. And I will say, one of the great DOE stories that is part of this, what I would love to emphasize is this relationship with industry didn't just go “poof.” This is consistent partnership with industry that CESER has ongoing through hurricanes, through other challenges in our threat work and our policy work, right — we have a really strong relationship with these utilities that allowed the deputy to pick up the phone, and industry was right at the door. And they knew the importance of that collaboration.

(POIGNANT, HOPEFUL PIANO MUSIC PLAYS)

MARA WINN: So that I think is an important thing for DOE because it's not a one-time deal. It's part of our sustained effort.

MATT DOZIER: No one knows what the outcome of the war will be, and there’s plenty of uncertainty ahead for Ukraine. But two things *are* certain. More help is on the way for the Ukrainian people. And second, with Russia targeting Ukraine’s energy system and using its own oil and gas exports as a weapon in the war, Andrew said the need for resilient grid infrastructure powered by clean sources of electricity has never been more clear.

ANDREW LIGHT: The map of energy has just changed in the entire world. And so I think that for the better it will result in a more resilient energy system. We hope and we're seeing signs of this and acceleration of the clean energy transition — not just for climate reasons now, but for energy security reasons. And, I hope that has an impact that we will continue to accelerate, and that there will be more of a consensus across different countries of the need to accelerate the clean energy transition in the name of diversification of supply.

(MUSIC FADES OUT)

(AMBIENT ELECTRONIC MUSIC PLAYS)

SARAH HARMAN: That’s all for this episode of Direct Current.

MATT DOZIER: Thank you to our guests, Andrew Light, Mara Winn, and Mike White for joining us on this episode.

SARAH HARMAN: You can find some really incredible photos of these giant pieces of equipment being loaded onto cargo planes on our website, energy.gov/podcast.

MATT DOZIER: Subscribe to Direct Current on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts, to hear the rest of season 4 and all of our past episodes. Direct Current is produced by me, Matt Dozier. Music and sound design for this episode by Michael Stewart. 

SARAH HARMAN: And our episode artwork is by me, Sarah Harman. This is a production of the U.S. Department of Energy and published from our nation’s capital in Washington, D.C.  

MATT DOZIER: Thanks for listening! 

(MUSIC FADES OUT)