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Expansion of renewable energy in South Korea

Posted November. 17, 2017 07:42,   

Updated November. 17, 2017 09:19


The Ministry of Environment of Korea has put a halt to the construction of a cluster of wind power plants in Yeongyang County, North Gyeongsang Province. It has been one year and a half since a local constructor launched the project to build 22 wind power plants on the premises of 190,000 m². The rationale behind the decision was to protect a family of eagle-owls, a natural monument and an endangered species, living near the construction site. There was a case where the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae suspended a tunnel construction of Cheonseong Mountain, but this is the first time that the Environment Ministry has made an independent decision to halt a construction project.

In 2004, President Moon Jae-in, who was then senior presidential secretary for civil society, met with the Venerable Jiyool who was staging a fasting protest on a tunnel construction project to protect salamanders inhabiting Cheonseong Mountain, and promised her to suspend the construction and wait for the second review. The gist here is not to recall the anti-climax of the dispute over mountain salamanders. Suspension may have been inevitable for the wind farm project as it was fraught with other potential issues such as deforestation and avalanches in addition to the destruction of eagle-owl habitat. What is noteworthy is that the ministry’s decision provides a glimpse into the murky future of renewable energy in South Korea, an industry touted by the Moon Jae-in administration as an alternative to nuclear power.

Mountainous and windy, Yeongyang is seeking to become the largest hub of wind power generation in the country on the back of its geographical attributes. The residents, however, are complaining sleep deprivation from the blade and low frequency noises and suffering crop and livestock damage. Such complaints are rampant across all wind farm sites including Norae Mountain in Cheongsong County, North Gyeongsang Province.

Choosing a site for wind farm construction is predicated on the quality of wind, and deforestation is inevitable to a certain extent as the farm is built along the mountain ridge. Interesting is the fact that environmental activist groups, the proponents of phasing out nuclear power and expanding the capacity of renewable energy generation, are also opposed to the construction of wind power plants. The activist groups are asking for suspension, claiming that the entire areas of Maengdong Mountain have been damaged irreparably, and that the residents are suffering from noise and low frequency. “Think globally and act locally” is an old motto of environmental activist groups, yet they are finding themselves in a wind power dilemma where the cause is pursued globally yet opposed locally. This is an apt example of the “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) attitude.

Recently, offshore wind power is emerging as a future energy industry owing to lack of construction sites and opposition from residents, but there are a host of issues to address such as destruction of marine ecosystem, a potential impact on migratory birds, and opposition from fishermen. Environmental activists are also at play here. When Jeju Island was designated as an offshore wind farm site, Hot Pink Dolphins, a local environmental activist group, tried to stop the project, arguing that the wind farm will destroy dolphin habitats.

Infrastructure for solar photovoltaic power generation is also far from adequate. According to comparison data between the Yeonggwang nuclear power plant and Yeonggwang solar park, it takes 540 times larger a site for the solar park to generate the same amount of power compared to its nuclear counterpart. Even if the entire city of Seoul is covered with photovoltaic panels, the amount of power generated from it will be an equivalent to Yeonggwang No. 6 nuclear power plant. Logging is unavoidable to some extent to secure a flat land site in South Korea’s highly mountainous terrain, which will prompt fierce opposition from forest conservation activists. Speaking of the phenomenon where an act to preserve the environment turns into another act to destroy it, Ryan Yonk, an assistant professor at Utah State University, stated that Green is becoming the enemy of green.

Renewable energy is the ultimate form of energy resource that mankind will have to achieve. President Moon Jae-in has vowed to increase the share of renewable energy resources from 1.9 percent to 20 percent by 2030. However, expanding the capacity of renewable energies could be more challenging than shutting down nuclear plants, as evidenced by the wind farm project that was suspended by a family of eagle-owls. Reconciling the conflicting values in environmental preservation will be a grave concern for the government.