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22.03.2017

Combating Ukraine’s energy crisis with wood fuel

Strassenbahn

Tram in Lviv: the frost patterns forming on the windows highlights the full extent of Ukraine’s energy crisis.

Workshop
Irmi Seidl, joint head of the WSL project, at a workshop with young Ukrainian researchers. Workshop video.
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Since Ukraine’s rift with Russia, Ukraine’s people have been burdened with cripplingly high energy prices and an extremely unreliable power supply. Wood fuel could help to lessen the country’s dependency on Russian gas and coal. Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL) are currently investigating the potential – and the limitations – of this renewable energy source in Ukraine.

Frost patterns form on tram windows in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, underscoring the energy shortage faced by the former Soviet state and pointing to the dim prospects of a better energy future. Ukraine is one of the ten most energy-intensive countries in the world. That means that its national economy spends a disproportionately high amount on energy compared to the country’s gross domestic product. Energy has been a scarce commodity in Ukraine since its supply of cheap Russian gas was cut off. The country could not even supply its population with much-needed power for heating back in winter 2014/2015, and the situation has only got worse since then, with spiralling energy prices to match. Were it not for state subsidies, most people would simply be unable to afford heating.

Mitigating the energy crisis

At present, Ukraine mainly uses gas (37%), coal (32%), nuclear power (17%) and oil (13%) to meet its energy needs. Although the country has its own fossil fuel deposits, these only provide half the energy it requires, leaving Ukraine dependent on Russia for the rest. In response to this situation, the Ukrainian government has adopted a master plan, Renewable Energy Ukraine, that is intended to increase use of wind power, solar power, and biomass such as wood fuel. Some 16% of Ukraine’s land area is forested, giving Ukraine more forest per capita than Switzerland.

Socially relevant energy research

“Even though firewood accounts for around a fifth of the wood harvested in the heavily forested Carpathian region in western Ukraine, it is not being used to its full potential,” explains Astrid Björnsen, head of the new research project Identifying Green Energy Options, a four-year programme funded by the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI). Alongside WSL and the Ukrainian National Forestry University (UNFU), the project’s partners include the Ukrainian non-governmental organisation FORZA and the interdisciplinary Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) in Bern. The involvement of the latter two bodies is intended to ensure that local residents’ views will be taken into account and that the research work will result in tangible benefits for local people.

The project sets out to determine, in its three study regions of Lviv, Transcarpathia and Ivano-Frankivsk, why wood fuel has not been used more intensively to date, how much could be used sustainably in future, and how efficiency could be increased. The project also supports young Ukrainian researchers specialising in renewable energies and assists local research and education projects that seek to improve energy supply, energy security and energy efficiency.

The energy transition in Ukraine: patience required

Even after her very first trip to Ukraine, it was clear to Astrid Björnsen that “the energy transition in Switzerland is a walk in the park compared to the situation in Ukraine”. While Switzerland has expertise, technology and financial resources as well as a stable political structure, Ukraine does not even have the most basic building blocks for the transition: there are not enough plumbers to fit valves to heaters, there are not enough property owners’ associations to band together and insulate their homes better, and there is not enough political trust, capital and know-how to put waste timber from the forests to use in wood-chip heating systems. In short, it is going to take time to resolve Ukraine’s energy crisis. The WSL project will contribute to developing the expertise required to enable sustainable use of wood in the future.

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