South Korea is planning to develop 4 gigawatts (GW) worth of solar and offshore wind on reclaimed land in Saemangeum, an estuarine tidal flat on the country’s southwest coast that was damned by the country’s government amidst significant controversy over 30 years ago.
Asia’s fourth-largest economy, South Korea finished 2017 with 11.3 GW worth of renewable energy capacity, including at least 5 GW worth of solar. However, the country’s government is hoping to become a regional renewable energy powerhouse, and at the end of October, President Moon Jae-in announced plans to build 4 GW worth of solar and offshore wind — including 3 GW worth of solar and 1 GW of offshore wind.
Specifically, South Korea intends to build a 3 GW power generation complex, to be completed by 2022, at which point it would be the world’s largest of its kind, as well as another 1 GW worth of offshore wind to be developed off the coast of Gunsan, in the North Jeolla Province, by 2026.
This “renewable energy cluster” will be built in the Saemangeum region, an estuarine tidal flat which was damned by the then-authoritarian government, with the so-called Saemangeum Reclamation Project (SRP) launched shortly before the country’s 1987 presidential election — an election generally held up as the turning point between authoritarian regimes and democracy. According to research published in 2014, “The SRP began as an election-time pledge given by unpopular authoritarian elites, who appropriated the SRP to garner votes in the underdeveloped Jeolla provinces in the southwest.”
The state-led project has been at the center of significant controversy over the years, including environmental concerns raised by such a massive project imposing human will on the environment (see satellite image to right). The area was a vitally important stopover for migratory wading birds, with some reports suggesting that as many as 330,000 individual wading birds relied on this estuary between 1997 and 2001.
Of course, what’s done is done, unfortunately, and visiting the Saemangeum reclaimed land area in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do Province, President Moon Jae-in announced his plans to build a renewable energy cluster that is intended to “transform” the region “into the center of Korea’s renewable energy production.”
“One of the world’s biggest solar energy and offshore wind energy generation facilities will be built in the Saemangeum area,” said President Moon, visiting the region for the second time after his inauguration. “The renewable energy production in this area will be a turning point for Korea’s renewable energy business that will foster the nation’s competitiveness in the field.”
“We will raise the level of renewable energy technology by placing related manufacturers and research institutes in the new renewable energy complex,” added the president. “The renewable energy project in Saemangeum is the touchstone of Korea’s new energy policies.”
Specifically, the Korean Government will seek to funnel KRW 10 trillion ($8.8 billion) in private investments to the project, with the Saemangeum Development and Investment Agency (SDIA), an agency run under the Ministry of Land, set to oversee the development of 2.6 GW worth of the projects — including 2.4 GW worth of solar, 100 MW worth of wind, and 100 MW worth of battery storage power. The country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (MAFRA) will oversee the development of 400 MW of solar PV. The 1 GW worth of offshore wind will be built separately.
Speaking to reporters at the announcement, Korea’s Industrial Policy Secretary, Kang Sungcheon, explained plans for the renewable energy cluster: “This means that solar companies, wind power-related manufacturing companies, and research institutes are participating together. We plan to attract about 10 trillion won of private business to Saemangeum. In the process of constructing and operating a large-scale renewable energy complex, we expect manufacturers, research institutes, and research institutes to gather in turn.”
“This announcement is a follow-up of President Moon’s pledge to increase the share of renewables in Korea’s generation mix to 20% by 2030,” explained David Kang, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energry Finance, who spoke to me via email. “The government has implemented a series of supporting policies (e.g. increased REC multiplier for wind and storage, temporary feed-in-tariff for small-scale PV, etc.) to boost the deployment of solar and wind in Korea, but the biggest obstacle has been the country’s chronic land availability issue. Much of the land suitable for solar and wind projects in Korea are either protected under the agricultural and environmental protection law or face severe opposition from local communities including farmers and fisheries. By utilizing the idle reclaimed land in Saemangeum region, the government aims to resolve the land availability issue and kick-start the deployment of utility-scale projects.”
However, following in the footsteps of the checkered history of Saemangeum reclamation, Kang is not fully confident in the long-term viability of the project being brought to fruition.
“The Saemangeum project is clearly a positive news for Korea’s renewable industry but political risks remain,” Kang continued. “The Saemangeum region has seen frequent changes in the direction of development together with changes in regime. There is no guarantee that the central and regional government will provide sustained support in the region when Moon steps down in 2022. Also, a number of stakeholders in Saemangeum who were closely involved in the previous Saemageum economic development plan are strongly opposed to the new plan.”
The Saemangeum project could be key to Korea’s larger plan to source 20% of its electricity from renewable energy sources, especially considering the challenges peculiar to South Korea.
“20% is undoubtedly a big jump especially considering the fact that waste energy and biomass account for the majority of current renewable generation,” explained Kang. “The share of solar and wind is around 2%. Tackling the chronic land availability issue will be key in achieving the 2030 target. Also, the country will need to invite more overseas players into its renewable market to promote competition and accelerate cost reduction.
“As of today, very few overseas players are active in Korea due to its complex renewable subsidy policy, land constraints and the related permit issue, as well as language barrier. Lastly, the country will need to reform its inflexible power market to properly reflect the various cost of energy transition to its electricity retail price. The current structure with strictly fixed retail power price imputes the financial burden to the state-utility Kepco and slows the envisioned transition.”