There’s a looming threat facing Ukrainians, and it’s not Russian; it’s American. There’s a “fossil fuel gold rush” currently underway by American energy companies exploiting Russia’s war in Ukraine for gain. Under the guise of “liberating” Ukraine from a reliance on Russia’s dirty energy imports, there has been an explosion of investment in oil and gas infrastructure which, once it’s built, will be around for a long time.
That fossil fuel gold rush is locking in a problematic dependence on dirty energy. But even when it’s produced for a noble cause, dirty energy is still dirty and still warms the planet, a message that needs reiterating since Ukrainians are understandably keen to get off Russian.
But there’s an even bigger threat emerging as Ukraine begins to rebuild from the war: The future face of Ukrainian infrastructure—its energy systems and its built environment—is setting up the country for more wars, more insecurity, and more supply disruption.
That’s because American companies are queueing in the wings of this war, eager to build big centralized systems as our big beltway bandits have done in other war zones. But that doesn’t build a more secure Ukraine, just as it didn’t build a more secure Iraq or Afghanistan. It actually makes a country more vulnerable, not less.
Take nuclear energy, for example. The American-based Westinghouse Electric Company recently signed a memorandum with Ukraine’s state nuclear company Energoatom to build nine new nuclear units. But this is hardly a heroic move by Westinghouse in response to this war. According to one of Ukraine’s largest environmental organizations, Екодія or “Eco-action”, the new nuclear units threaten the safety of Ukrainians, its economy, and its environment.
Concerns loom large regarding new nuclear power plants being targeted for nuclear terrorism, for example, in addition to the precedent for poor construction of nuclear power plants in Ukraine, the long lead times for building nuclear power when Ukraine needs a much quicker recovery, and the production of tons of radioactive waste, which at present have no technology for non-toxic disposal.
All this should be reason enough to get off dirty fuels. But there’s a bigger security issue that this American dirty energy gold rush in Ukraine raises.
All these American approaches to “saving Ukraine” and “liberating” them from Russian reliance reinforce a centralized energy system. And that’s exactly what Ukraine doesn’t need. Ukraine needs to decentralize its energy system, not centralize it.
That’s how you help Ukraine be more secure. The smaller the energy system, the better. Big nuclear plants and big coal, gas and oil facilities just give enemies bigger targets to bomb, sabotage, or hack. It’s that simple.
Go small with your power plant and you increase the country’s energy security. Go local with your energy supply and you increase the country’s energy independence. Go micro with your energy grid and you increase the country’s energy reliability. And the only way to do that is through decentralized renewable energy with things like solar power plants and heat pumps in communities and on buildings. And you build those buildings as efficiently as possible, so it’s using the least amount of energy possible, another trick in the energy security playbook.
This energy secure approach is already happening across Ukraine. An outpatient clinic in the Kyiv region is relying not on American or Russian nuclear, coal, oil, or gas but on a ground-water heat pump and a solar power plant. It’s the first medical facility in that area to feature an energy-efficient system. Elsewhere in Ukraine, a school just constructed a solar station with an energy storage system. It was the first in a bigger campaign called “100ResforSchools”. The campaign’s aim is to create decentralized energy sources for Ukraine’s schools, as nearly 2,000 schools have been damaged by the war, and most do not have electricity.
In fact, this kind of work is happening throughout Ukraine. In Zviahel, a Ukrainian NGO Ecoclub installed a solar power plant for the hospital there. As they describe it, the installed power plant helps guarantee energy security for the medical facility, saves money on utility bills, and continues medical care regardless of attacks.
This is what Ukrainian energy independence and energy security looks like. And this is what the green reconstruction of Ukraine should look like, both in terms of energy systems and the built environment. Not Westinghouse’s version, or Big Oil’s version, or Big Coal’s version or Big Gas’s version.
That’s merely a repeat of big energy that puts a big target on a big system. All that becomes is a big security threat to the people living near that plant and who are reliant on it.
If we really want to help the people of Ukraine and their security, which is what Americans claim to care about, this kind of clean reconstruction is what will set the country on a more stable path: local jobs, local power plants, local supply, and local control. A Ukraine-first strategy. Nothing could be more patriotic. And nothing could be more energy secure.
Dr. Michael Shank is an adjunct professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.