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South Korea's Long Road to Green Energy: Past, Present, Future

published: 2019-08-31 0:00

Credit: FirstEnergy Corp. via Flickr 

The energy issue is much-debated in Taiwan. How does the rest of Asia deal with such a complex issue? Take South Korea for example, it lacks natural resources such as oil and natural gas. Nearly 98% of fossil fuel consumption depends on imports. 40% of the electricity relies on the thermal power generation, and 30% on nuclear power generation. However, Moon Jae-In, the President of South Korea, decided to curb the country’s reliance on nuclear and thermal power, which accounts for 70% of the power supply in Korea and increase the renewable share notably.

The South Korean government has vowed to cut back dependency on nuclear and thermal power in 2017, hoping to reduce the number of nuclear reactors from 24 to 14 by 2038. Thus its goal of becoming a nuclear power-free country could be realized by 2060. The government also aims to increase the renewable energy share by 20%, while coal-fired power plants of more than 30 years are targeted to be decommissioned.

Then why has the world's sixth-largest nuclear power country made such a decision, cutting off nuclear energy as well as thermal power?

Essential But Controversial Nuclear Energy 
South Korea's nuclear energy has developed rapidly since the 1950s. It is the third country in the world with its research and development capabilities of third-generation nuclear power technology, while it is also committed to the development of nuclear fusion technology which emits zero pollution. The country has begun exporting its nuclear power technology since 2008.

Nowadays there are 24 operational nuclear reactors in South Korea, with a total capacity of 22,505 MW. The Yeonggwang Power Plant is located in Yeonggwang County, in the southwest of South Korea. There are currently six pressurized water reactors, each generating 997 MW. Hanul nuclear power complex is located in Uljin County, in the East of South Korea. There are six pressurized water reactors with a capacity of 950~1000 MW each, with a total capacity of 6,157GW. These are among the world's largest nuclear power plants.

However, South Korea’s nuclear energy development began to slow down in 2011. The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan is one of the reasons. It has been 8 years since the Fukushima nuclear disaster. However, there are still many problems to be solved. South Korea is one of the top 10 countries with the highest density of nuclear power plants, mostly concentrated in the southeastern part of the country. Major cities such as Busan, Gyeongju, and Ulsan are all very close to nuclear power plants. This proximity has struck mortal fear into their residents, especially after the earthquake in Gyeongju in September 2016, which is 5.8 in magnitude.

What makes the matters worse was the massive corruption scandal which dominated the news headlines in 2012~2013. Employees of Korean Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) have colluded with the parts manufacturers and falsified nuclear power safety certificates. After further investigations, the government found that corruption has been on-going for more than 10 years. Due to these thousands of falsified certificates, six reactors need to have their cabling replaced, which were certified with fraudulent certificates. Consequently, the South Korean nuclear power industry has lost the trust of its citizens.

South Korea has set a schedule to decommission nuclear power plants at the moment. The lives of 14 old nuclear power plants will not be extended in the future. The plans for building 6 new nuclear power plants are canceled. Nuclear power will be phased out. For example, concerning the oldest Kori nuclear power plant, which had been operational since 1978, one of its reactors was decommissioned in 2017. The other three will follow suit between 2023 and 2025. The Unit-1 reactor of Yeonggwang Nuclear Power Plant, which has been in operation for more than 30 years, will also be closed in 2022.

  Credit: pixabay

South Korea is not only a nuclear powerhouse, but also among the worst ten offenders of air pollutions in the world. The air quality in South Korea is the worst among the 35 member states of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Only 7 countries in the world that emit more pollutions than South Korea. The major manufacturers exceeding the greenhouse gas emission limits are partially to blame for this jarring ranking. Still, South Korea has 53 thermal power plants, 8 of which are more than 30 years old and due for decommissioning.

Given the situation above, President Moon has decided to gradually increase the renewable energy share, replacing nuclear energy and thermal power generation. To reduce air pollution, South Korea also announced in March that the government would shut down four coal-fired power plants that have been in service for more than 30 years from March to June. Two newer coal-fired power plants and other energy sources will be deployed instead to make up the resulted capacity gap of 2,120 MW. Preventive maintenance has been performed on 48 coal-fired power plants between March and May.

The Challenges of Going Green
According to the South Korean Ministry of Industry, Trade and Resources, the share of coal-fired power generation is down from 41.7% to 37.1% year-over-year in the first half of 2019. Liquefied Natural gas is down from 28.9% to 25.3%. Conversely, the share of nuclear energy has increased, which jumped from 21.5% to 28.8%. The renewable energy share increased only slightly from 6.1% to 6.7%.

KEPCO’s spending is increasing due to the policy shifts in recent years, such as meeting the Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) and power costs. It can also be costly to switch to the relatively expensive natural gas and to procure new equipment for green energy.

Compared with KEPCO’s financial performance of 208 billion won (about US$ 172 million) in loss in 2018, this year’s financial performance is all the more chilling: the loss has bloated to 928.5 billion won (about US$ 767 million) in 2019. An unnamed source close to the company indicated that KEPCO has spent 827 billion won (about US$ 683 million) on the RPS alone, up 100 billion (about US$ 82.6 million) won from the same period last year. Chung Bum-Jin, a professor of nuclear engineering at Kyung Hee University, pointed out that, for every 1% drop in the utilization rate of the nuclear power plants, KEPCO would lose 50 billion won (about US$ 41.3 million) annually.

Obviously, there are still many challenges and obstacles to South Korea’s path to green energy. If South Korea is to achieve the goal of a 20% share of energy from renewable sources another 48.7 billion KW is required to reach 63 billion KW, according to the official data. This amount of capacity is the equivalent of an additional 35 nuclear power generators. Despite the current situation, South Korea has planned to increase its renewable energy share by up to 35% by 2040.


Read the original TechNews article by Daisy Chuang

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