June 6, 2021, 6:00 a.m.
SEOUL – Out at sea east of Ulsan, South Korea's vibrant industrial heartland, a new industry is emerging that will eventually dominate shipbuilding, automobile manufacturing, and onshore petrochemical facilities. Literally: offshore windmills are very large.
South Korea wants to rely on green energy. The country has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050 and recently announced plans to build the world's largest floating offshore wind farm at a cost of around $ 32 billion.
But the Ulsan program now faces a number of new challenges: to make a meaningful difference in energy supply, it needs to be dragged further out to sea and requires better technology. However, Seoul seems eager to rely on South Korean industry alone for development, which could ruin its plans. The government's grand ambitions are also causing an outcry from South Korea's huge fishing industry.
Right now, the country's green ambitions to create 12 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity – many times what it produces today – far exceed its plans. And experts, activists, and even some in the industry cast doubts as to whether South Korea has what it takes to truly become a green trailblazer, despite the fact that Seoul has just hosted a major international summit to promote green partnerships.
“If you look at the Dogger Bank wind farm [in the North Sea off England], which already covers hundreds of square kilometers with several 14-15 megawatt wind turbines: that's only 3.6 gigawatts. We need 10 times more in nine years and we need 20 to 30 times more to be carbon neutral, ”said Chong Ng, research director at Catapult, an offshore renewable energy innovation center based in the UK.
A big problem, Ng added in an interview, is that “we have run out of space on the ocean floor. The only way to explore this wind resource is to go deeper into the ocean. To get into the deep sea, we need a floating wind turbine. "
This technology is not yet mature. Take the cables you will need to anchor the windmills' floating platforms to the ocean floor. They have to withstand the power of a windmill, which generates a tremendous amount of energy, for 25 years, but they also have to be removable so that the platforms and windmills can be brought in for inspection. This technology has to be found out.
But the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants the technology to be developed in South Korea and forego the know-how of big global players like the German company Siemens. Speaking to Foreign Policy about the background, representatives of several international wind power companies complained about the process of entering the South Korean market. They cite a lack of transparency and a clear roadmap for how the green transition should take place, but the biggest problem is the preference given to South Korean companies. According to the international giants, this means that the South Korean project will be slower, less efficient and more expensive because they do not have the latest and greatest technology.
“I don't think any of the UK windmills will be built in the UK. They just got the best technology from Siemens and these people, ”said Sam Macdonald, International Solidarity Coordinator for Friends of the Earth Korea, a climate-oriented non-governmental organization. “In Korea, on the other hand, it is still very national; it will still be Korean windmills from Korean companies. "
Nonetheless, Moon has announced that he will make Ulsan the world's leading supplier of floating offshore wind.
"The Ulsan floating offshore wind farm will be like an oil field at sea and herald Korea's future as an energy power plant," said Moon when announcing the project last month.
The problem is the uncertainty of it all: whether the general political sentiment in South Korea is green enough to survive a project of this magnitude an upcoming election, the lack of international cooperation, and whether the government will make up its own mind how the fishing industry is doing please Ulsan and is allowed to set up the turbines.
“The reality is that we've seen so many proposals for offshore wind projects so many times that people are simply exhausted. Twelve gigawatts is a lot, it's a lot of money, but will we actually see something like this? I think a lot of people will question that, ”Joojin Kim, executive director of Solutions for Our Climate, a South Korean NGO, told Foreign Policy.
“Offshore wind requires cooperation with fisheries stakeholders, it requires a reorganization of certain regimes of marine use. That will not do. At least not at the speed it should be, ”said Kim.
The local communities are in charge of the building permits, so fishermen from a village can complain to their local community about the installation of massive wind turbines that would hamper their fishing, and then the community could refuse to grant the permit and stop the project.
“Permit programs should not be postponed to these local authorities. It's typical for the government to go ahead with local communities, but they just let things happen, ”Kim said.
In a statement, the South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said the government was working on the issue. "Even if the marked area is designated as a fishing area for the wind farm project, the project can be carried out after obtaining approval from stakeholders, including local fishermen and residents, ”the statement said.
And whether low-level governments are committed to green energy is not the only question plaguing South Korea's huge wind project. Is there really a strong political will to make big decisions about green electricity?
“The Moon administration even takes a very vague stance on new coal-fired power plants, he often says in his speeches that we have shut down 10 coal-fired power plants; that's a very typical phrase that comes up in his speeches, ”said Kim.
“The coal-fired shutdown plans he mentioned were actually drawn up during the previous government. With new nuclear power plants, they were very quick, quick and decisive. Moon canceled these plans just months after he was sworn in. So there is a lot of ambivalence, ”he said.
Other critics agree that Moon is not necessarily ready to put his politics where his mouth is.
“The political instability in relation to green politics is quite high. China and Taiwan are making their political commitments much stronger, ”said Ng.
"China, there is no other party to replace, and with Taiwan, its commitment to green industries remains, despite going through parliamentary elections last year," he added.
Despite all of these problems, activists remain optimistic that South Korea will get greener. They assume that this wind project will have a positive effect on the country's otherwise heavily coal-dependent electricity supply – at least for no other reason than necessity.
“The only option for Korea is offshore wind. In my opinion, solar power is not a good option in Korea. There is no hydroelectric plant, ”said Macdonald. "Offshore wind is the only real option for massive renewable electricity."