Zhytomyr is a unique Ukrainian city. Last winter, there were almost no blackouts here, and even now, the community does not suffer from blackouts. The radiators are always warm in winter, and utility bills are lower. The city became the record holder in Ukraine for implementing resource-saving and energy efficiency programs. When the full-scale war broke out, this became even more evident. The city is also one of the leaders in helping the Armed Forces of Ukraine army.

At first glance, it seems that Ukrainian cities are suffering from shelling, lack of electricity, funerals of their dead residents at the front, and business closures. But in fact, cities in Ukraine are not only suffering from war but are also rapidly improving along the lines of the European model, introducing modern technologies in energy efficiency, ecology, and resource saving, similar to cities in Western Europe and Scandinavia.

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One such example is Zhytomyr.

The city has been implementing energy-efficient projects since 2015. For this Regional center 100 kilometers to the west of Kyiv, with a population of 261,000 in 2022, it was a matter of survival, says the mayor of the city, Serhiy Sukhomlyn. The old utility networks were so outdated that more water and heat were lost on the way to residents than they received in their apartments.

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“We first replaced the networks because even with the best equipment, with heat losses of 25 to 30 percent due to the old networks, it would not work properly. Due to the replacement of most utility networks, we have an average of 4.5 percent network losses. These are the lowest in Ukraine, compared to the 14 percent regulatory standards in the country,” Sukhomlyn told Kyiv Post.

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Decentralization is the key

Replacing networks in the city is very expensive, but this was made possible by the national “Decentralization” reform project that Ukraine launched in 2015. Its essence boils down to the fact that cities now have the right to manage the taxes that businesses pay on their territory. In the previous system, under the authoritarian president Viktor Yanukovych, each mayor had to ask for money from the central budget, which in turn would make the mayors of the cities loyal to the president. After the Revolution of Dignity, cities were given not only the opportunity to manage their budgets but also to independently interact with international donors and attract funds from grants.

Most cities began to repair roads, but Zhytomyr went a different way – they began to completely replace communications and reform the municipal sector.

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It was a difficult decision, says the mayor. “When you build a square or a road or a sidewalk, it’s popular, everyone can see it, and people say ‘wow!’ Just announce a tender, and you get a result, good ratings. But if you say that we’re going to dig up the city for five years, change the networks, and then in a few years there will be lower heating losses so the energy sector will function better – this is not immediately visible, and it’s not so popular,” Sukhomlyn said.

But gradually, everything was modernized, such as the new Vodokanal pumping station. For 60 years they couldn’t replace the old Soviet equipment. Now, there is new German equipment, and the automation is partially Ukrainian. In addition to the fact that everything works smoothly, the city has saved a lot of resources.

“The old equipment suffered from wear and tear and was on the verge of stopping at any time. In addition, we have energy savings – electricity consumption has decreased by 20 percent. These were grant funds from the Slovenian government, €2.5 million,” director of Vodokanal, Roman Ilyk, said.

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But they didn’t stop here. New sewage treatment plants are being built in the city with American grant funds.

To ensure everything functions smoothly, they plan to install solar panels on the water supply system to have its own power source. The system has already been tested in the emergency department of the Regional Hospital – now the Medical Center is partially powered by these panels on the roof, deputy chief physician Vasyl Bahlenko said.

“Estimated power is 36 KW. Of course, this gives us a lot. Equipment like a tomograph and an angiograph can’t be powered by solar panels, diesel generators are already in operation here. But they pull X-rays, lighting on all six floors of the emergency department, elevators, autoclaves – they are enough for this equipment to work,” Bahlenko said.

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Networks and insulation of hospitals, kindergartens, and schools are also being replaced. Not only does it look beautiful, but it saves resources, too. This is how Zhytomyr survived the winter of 2022-2023 – when Russia launched missile strikes to destroy the Ukrainian energy sector – without blackouts.

“There was a schedule of blackouts for all cities, Zhytomyr was no exception, but we avoided it. When we understood that the shutdown would occur if we did not reduce consumption by 9 MWh, we just gave more heat to the apartments at night, when there were no load peaks, and closer to 9 a.m. we turned off 35 to 25 boiler houses, turned off the water supply because we had created a supply of water, removed part of the electric transport from the routes, and replaced all street lighting with more economical ones. And we were able to reduce consumption by just that 9 MW, so that the shutdown did not happen,” Sukhomlyn said.

Making use of waste for fuel

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So, now electricity is good, but the city council decided to decentralize the heat supply too. How? By building several new high-tech thermal power plants that run on wood chips or pellets, since there is a lot of wood in this forest region. One of these stations was purchased with Swiss grant funds and now provides electricity and heat to several dozen apartment buildings in the city, regardless of external supplies.

“On the fuel line, wood chips go here, into the furnace. A boiler that burns wood chips at a temperature of 1,000 degrees. Through four pipelines, heat goes to the oil heat exchanger and from there to the first circuit of the turbine. There is recovery and then repeated thermal transfer. We have a total of two oil circuits and a third coolant circuit,” Dmytro Rogozhyn, head of the community’s heating networks, said.

This is a full-fledged turbine with a generator, which, with the help of a small area and controlled by one person through automation, creates an energy island in the city – which does not depend on the country’s general energy situation.

“We bought equipment with grant funds, and the entire combined heat and power plant (CHHP) was built by the city itself. All this was built by Zhytomyr residents. All automation, logistics, and project work – we did it ourselves,” Rogozhyn said.

In addition, the city has reconstructed old boiler houses and supplemented them with mobile gas stations that provide additional heat and electricity. This makes the city’s energy system stable, says Ruslan Pohrebnyak, an engineer at one of these stations.

“0.63 MW of electric power and 0.63 MW of thermal power. We can use electricity from this machine and do not take electricity from the grid, ensuring the safe operation of the boiler room, and helping the boiler room with heating part of the heat energy. During blackouts, we use this station to maintain boiler electricity and provide heat to critical infrastructure. Previously, we had four boiler houses in this part of the city, but thanks to the reconstruction, we left one boiler house with the support of this station,” Pohrebnyak said.

As a result, the city now consumes half as much gas as it did 10 years ago – not 100 million cubic meters, but 47 million. The plans are to consume 10 million cubic meters and use garbage for fuel. Moreover, the city has been sorting waste for a long time.

“If we take schools and kindergartens, they used to use several times more gas than they do now. Because now we have carried out thermal modernization and wall insulation. Upgrading and replacing networks and reducing losses also have an effect. And finally, alternative sources of heat and electricity – wood, heat pumps, solar panels. Our plan for the future is a CHPP based on recycled garbage. The city can provide itself with fuel,” Sukhomlyn said.

And this is not only energy independence and savings but also stable heat without losses and electricity without interruptions. Additionally, it contributes to the country’s energy security because the lower the consumption of gas, the less it has to be bought abroad. Not to mention the fact that this saves city funds. That is why Zhytomyr, during the years of full-scale war, is one of the leaders in helping the army. Almost 10 percent of the city budget is allocated annually by the city council to help the Armed Forces.

And Zhytomyr is not an isolated example. Ukrainian cities are rapidly modernizing their infrastructure even during the war. Active work has taken place in Zvyahel, Vinnytsia, Lviv, Dnipro, Kharkiv, Slavutych, Mykolaiv, Cherkasy, and many other major centers, even in the frontline cities of the Donbas – Kostyantynivka and Kramatorsk. Ukraine is modernizing, getting rid of its Soviet legacy, and moving toward a more sustainable world – not even the war can stop this.

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