Can Montana solar panel innovation help save Ukraine from Russian attacks?
By Russell Rowland,2023-06-10
Solar panels illustration by Getty Images.
One of the most effective strategies that Vladimir Putin has utilized during this past year’s invasion of Ukraine has been repeated strikes against Ukraine’s main sources of power. It has become a devastating cycle of destruction, reconstruction and destruction again. Ukrainians are dying by the score because they don’t have heat, or power for medical devices. And so far, the solution has been to simply rebuild these energy sources, which are impossible to hide from further attacks.
Early in June, Russia bombed the Nova Kakhovka dam, threatening a nearby nuclear power plant with flooding.
In February, Ukraine reported that an air attack had taken out power in six different regions, leaving millions of Ukrainians without power in the middle of winter. At the time, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said that Ukraine was without 44 percent of nuclear generation and 75 percent of thermal power capacity. And although an April 11 article in the New York Times declared that Ukraine has shown remarkable resiliency in recovering from these attacks, it also said that it will take billions of dollars to restore the infrastructure. Plus there is still no way to prevent the attacks from happening again.
John Mues, a nuclear engineer who grew up in Deer Lodge, Montana, thinks he has the perfect solution for this problem.
Mues and his hometown friend Nathan Blanding, an architect who lives in Billings, have developed a series of solar units, called PSAPLINGs, that can be inexpensively produced, easily installed, and best of all, widely scattered so that there is no centralized structure for the Russians to target. Simply put, installing as many of these units as possible would make it impossible for Russia to keep repeating this cycle.
Mues and Blanding have been working on this project for more than two years, and the plan has captured the attention of some of the top officials in Ukraine, including Mustafa Nayyem, who is currently the Head of Ukraine’s Restoration and Infrastructural Development Agency. Mues and Blanding’s team have also had extensive conversations with staff members from Ukraine’s Energy Minister, which led to a formal letter requesting that they produce 50 Megawatts of PSAPLING units, which they specified would just be the first order of many. For context, one PSAPLING unit produces 6,000 watts, so the number of units required for 50 Megawatts would number more than 8000 for that order alone. But they want to place a similar order for another 50 regions of similar size. So the eventual output of PSAPLING units would number in the tens of thousands.
Mues and Blanding contacted the U.S. National Security Council, informing them of Ukraine’s request, and the Security Council directed them to a group at the US Department of Energy that has been tasked with restoring Ukraine’s power. After hearing the proposal, they requested an official document from Ukraine requesting the technology, which Mues and Blanding produced thanks to their connection with Mustafa Nayyem. Once Nayyem’s staff saw the benefits of the project, they also passed the information along to their Ministry of Justice, which has been struggling to provide energy to their prison system and prisoner-of-war camps due to the frequent power outages. So that group also submitted a request for thousands of units.
Meanwhile, in a recent interview, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm revealed that the Department of Energy is pouring resources into developing a “warproof” power grid. She said they have their labs working on a solution. But according to Mues, PSAPLING’s plan is not only all ready to go, but it’s much less complicated than the one the government is pursuing. It could be incorporated immediately, while the Department of Energy is still in the planning stage.
Because Mues and Blanding have developed a product that can be produced quickly and efficiently, they have proposed that some of the production be done in Ukraine to boost Ukraine’s struggling work force. But they also plan to keep most of the production in Montana, where they both still live, in order to bring jobs to the state.
PSAPLING has procured a commitment from a major supplier in the U.S. to provide the materials for these units, and they have also had communication with several flag officers in the U.S. military who have suggested that the use of C-17 or C-5 air units could be possible to transport the materials to Ukraine with Intra-Agency tasking. They have also been in contact with Electrical Workers Without Borders, who have agreed to provide as much help as they can to install the units.
The urgency of the project doesn’t need to be explained. Lives are being lost because of lack of power in Ukraine. And the stubborn devotion to recreating the same structures over and over again, only to have Russia take them out once more, could go on for as long as Putin decides to continue. The officials in Ukraine who support the project are ready to go. But they don’t have the finances to fund the project.
Which brings us to the crux of the matter, which is that the only thing preventing this project from moving forward is the reluctance of the U.S. Department of Energy to divert the funds that are already available in a different direction. It is, of course, impossible to determine how many of the nearly 8,500 Ukrainian civilians killed in this offensive died from the direct attack on power grids, or how many of the more than 14,000 injured will have to live with this memory because of this Russian strategy. But for whatever reason, the opportunity to address the issue in a way that would provide jobs for dozens if not hundreds of American workers, and would also prove as a true show of leadership in taking a revolutionary approach to this issue is stuck in some kind of dark bureaucratic tunnel, waiting for the right person or entity to give it the green light to move forward.
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