Cold at Home
AGAINST THE WALL
Tomas is a reasonably good gauge of the reach of radiant heat on a cold winter day in Bobritsya, Ukraine. Nestled against one of the cement brick walls enclosing the point at which the natural gas line enters Katerina Nykonyvna's house, his butt is toasty warm. Front paws tucked under his chest, he stretches his chin to rest on a woolen slipper – already looking for different ways to keep warm.
In short, it's warm for about 30 cm on either side of the main supporting wall in the house where Katja and her cat live. So this bedroom and the living room opposite are almost livable. But the rooms beyond – including two more bedrooms in one direction and the kitchen, entry and bathroom in the other – are unbearably cold.
Almost 75 years ago, Katja was born in the house to her right, which was built by her grandfather. At age 25, she married, moved to Donetsk and started a family of her own. But over the years, she remained deeply connected to the house, the village, the river and the forest – and made the 1500 km round trip three or four times per year, with summer being her favourite time to be in Bobritsya.
When Katja retired (unexpectedly as a widow), she and her son Stephan (now 49) began building the house on the left, planning to make it a comfortable summer dacha for themselves, Stephan's wife and their daughter Maria (Masha). They came when they had time, bought what materials they could afford, and relied on Stephan's training as an electrician to guide their progress. Once a gas line was in place, bit by bit the foundation went down around it, the walls went up and the roof went on. Each fall, Katja returned with Stephan to Donetsk.
"I used to go to Donetsk for the winters, to avoid paying for gas here," she says. "There we live on the third floor of a state apartment, so it is always warm. The boiler house is in the yard just behind, so sometimes it is even too hot."
The hard work of staying warm in Ukraine
Winters in Ukraine are cold enough to make most people shiver at the thought: the average daytime temperature in January hovers around 0°C, dipping down to -10°C overnight. When the strong "Bora" wind whips in from the northeast, it can quickly plummet to -20°C or even colder.
Staying warm – or perhaps more accurately, trying to be "not cold" – is a constant challenge throughout much of Ukraine, regardless of whether one lives in the city or the country, but for different reasons.
While 42% of the population (mostly in cities) has the benefit of district heating systems that run on natural gas, the heat they put out is as likely to be excessive as inadequate. Individual apartments have no thermostat controls to regulate the temperature. If it gets too cold, residents bundle up in sweaters or blankets and huddle around the radiator; too hot, and they simply remove layers and throw open the windows.
Since the 1990s, the government has made substantial effort to connect more towns and villages to the gas network, which now serves another 28% of the population, primarily near large cities. Being just 45 km from Kiev, Bobritsya residents were among those who made the switch from chopping wood to lighting the blue-gold flame on cold winter nights. But there's a clear "disconnect" at the household level: a remarkable number of homes, including Katja's dacha, lack the indoor piping needed to distribute gas heat throughout the house.
Around 30% of Ukrainian houses still rel on solid fuels – either just wood or a combination of wood and coal. As Ukraine is heavily forested, wood is easy to acquire; much of the coal supply is imported from Russia and South Africa.
A carry-over of the Soviet era, energy has largely been considered a public good that should be affordable to all. But poor construction standards during the period have created a chronic condition of, well, rather epic proportions: in the vast majority of dwellings, too much cold gets in and too much heat seeps out.
Home to stay, for better or worse
When the conflict broke out in early 2014, Katja came back to Bobritsya permanently. Over the summer, she was up at 5:00 and spent many hours every day tending a large vegetable garden and the fruit trees in her back yard. But the pleasure of summer gardening soon became a means of self-preservation: anticipating that every last hryvnia (UAH) of her pension would be needed for gas and electricity bills, Katja wanted to be sure she would still able to put food on the table.
As the produce reached its peak, Katja moved indoors, spending long days in the kitchen, chopping, boiling and canning. And when winter set in, she followed the long-held practice of shrinking her living space to match her heating capacity and her pension. With the door closed, the radiating wall kept her room comfortably warm.
In February 2015, the family agreed that Masha should leave Donetsk and join Katja. With doors left open in a bid to draw some heat into her bedroom, the gas bill began to rise. Winter won, for the most part: the thermometer on Masha's make-up table rarely rose above 15°C. For the rest of the winter, she was sick almost constantly. And then the really bad news arrived.
April 1, 2015 seems likely to be etched in the national psyche – and perhaps written into Ukrainian history books – as the day the government drove the entire population into severe fuel poverty. Overnight, the price of natural gas increased sevenfold.
The alternative was to teeter on the brink of national bankruptcy. Recognising that Ukraine was stretched to its limits by a severe economic crisis (the economy slumped by 8% in 2014 alone) and the ongoing war with Russia over the Donbass region, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other donor organisations were prepared to step in with low-cost loans or outright support. But one of the conditions was that Ukraine get its own energy budget in order.
For decades, Naftogaz, which is owned by the state, has been the maingas supplier to household consumers. It sourced about 40% (15 billion cubic metres or bcm) of gas from its domestic subsidiary Ukrgazvy-dobuvannya (UGV), paying USD 30 per trillion cubic metre (/tcm). The rest (22 bcm) it acquired through import sources, paying an average of USD 350/tcm. Naftogaz offered varying tariffs to customers, ranging from UAH 1 089 to UAH 4 011 (USD 70 to USD 235) for 1 000 cubic metres (cm) of gas..
Do the math and the problem is obvious: Naftogaz was selling to consumers for only about 20% of what it cost to import the gas, leaving the government to cover a ballooning deficit.
In effect, the IMF was demanding that Ukraine stop giving away gas. In 2014 alone, the subsidy was estimated to have carried a price tag of UAH 70 bln (USD 4.1 bln) or 4% of Ukraine's gross domestic product (GDP). While the 280% price hike would hit consumers hard, the IMF argued that bringing prices up to market rates was a necessary step towards energy reform and would bring a range of benefits. Personal pain for national gain.
Ukraine complied and got an IMF top-up of USD 15.1 bln, bringing to total assistance in recent years to USD 40 bln. If government revenues remain stable (admittedly a rather big 'if' at present), it could redirect the gas subsidy savings to improving healthcare and education, or boost its defence budget in this time of crisis. Additionally, with Naftogaz and UGV moving towards turning a profit, Ukraine should be able to kick-start new gas exploration, and possibly start attracting foreign investors.
Katja explains how the international negotiations played out her gas bill (for reference, UAH 1.00 = USD 0.04). "Previously, gas was very cheap: 24 kopiykas (UAH 0.24) per cubic meter (/m3), then around 40 kopiykas (UAH 0.40) – that came to about UAH 2 500 per year (USD 95). Later the price rose to UAH 1.05/m3– and then, on 1 April 2015, it jumped overnight to UAH 7.20 UAH/m3 (USD 0.27)."
Another anticipated benefit of removing the subsidy is that paying market prices will prompt Ukrainians as a whole to become more energy conscious and to make their homes more energy efficient. Substantial potential exists to dramatically reduce overall gas consumption.
Hard times now, but perhaps an easier future
On a grey morning in January 2016, Katja watches out the window as Masha leaves to catch the bus for Kiev, clearly proud of her granddaughter but also deeply concerned. With her job at the supermarket, Masha earns UAH 21 per hour, or about UAH 3 500 per month (USD 134). Bus fare is UAH 22 each way, so two hours of every shift goes to just getting there. On top of helping put food on the table, Masha is on her own to come up with university tuition of UAH 8000 per year (USD 306).
Stephan is already hard at work. He's been at it non-stop since the day he arrived for good in November 2015, says Katja; plugging insulation (including old rags) into the cracks in the ceiling, spraying foam insulation around windows, extending the electrical wiring into the kitchen and installing a hot water tank in the bathroom.
Slowly, the house is becoming more comfortable, but with all the doors are open, the gas bills have shot up sharply.
"Alone, I would consume about 170 m3 to 180 m3 of gas per month, maybe even less," says Katja. "Our bill for December is close to 300 m3– almost UAH 1 400 (USD 53). Part of the problem is that we cannot regulate the gas. It's not a boiler, it's automatic – meaning it's either 'on' or 'off'. But even when it runs at full power, it's not enough to heat the whole house."
With two electric space heaters, two computers, a hot water tank and Stephan's power tools, the electricity bill jumped to around UAH 380 (USD 15). Against her husband's pension of UAH 1 902 (USD 73), that leaves only about UAH 200 (USD 8) for other necessities. With the average pension being between UAH 1 200 and UAH 1 500 per month, Katja knows that many of her friends and neighbours are much worse off – particularly those who live alone and have no means of upgrading their homes or their heating systems.
Katja reflects on what would be different if their energy bills were less overwhelming. "If we had money, we would be able to buy some clothes, to visit our friends and neighbors, to give them some presents," she says. "But we cannot do that. As our Prime Minister Yatsenyuk says, we have to tighten our belts. We have to eat less. And we have to insulate our houses... somehow."
It's clear that families who were thrifty in the past are in a better position now: those who didn't throw out their wood stoves when the gas lines came in 20 years ago have simply gone back to their old ways. Wood stacks butt up against gas boilers and electric heaters as people prepare to choose their heat source according to what is affordable on a given day.
Rather than scrap gas subsidies altogether, social agencies argue, the government would do well to shift to needs-based assistance, which would be more efficient and less costly for the national budget than the past practice of a blanket payment to all home, rich and poor alike. Unless the government reforms either gas subsidies or pensions, thousands of retirees like Katja seem destined to live out the rest of their days in severe fuel poverty. Multiple studies show that would have the effect of driving up health care costs, and even lead to an earlier death for some people.
For now, the Nykonyvna family is pinning its hopes on being able to afford either a gas or wood stove (possibly both?) before next winter. The grinding of the cement mixer in the yard reflects Stephan's methodical efforts to make such dreams come true; today, he's pouring a concrete floor in the room set up to house the hoped-for stoves and Katja has some reason to be optimistic.
"There was wood in the old house, so we collected that and Stephan also cut some old trees. Altogether, we have firewood for two winters. I think it will be easier. Everybody will be happier if the house is warmer."
Click on the arrow in the red box below the floor plan to follow videographers Poul Madsen and Simon Sticker on a 360° tour of the Nykonyvna family home. It may take a moment to activate...maybe you'll want to go get a sweater?