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Shift to renewable energy requires social consensus

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By Yoon Ja-young

The permanent shutdown of the country's first nuclear reactor Kori 1 signals a transition in energy policy from nuclear and coal-powered plants to LNG and renewable energy. While President Moon Jae-in has emphasized safe and eco-friendly as keywords for his energy policy, experts say society should reach a consensus on accepting higher rates.

According to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, 11 nuclear reactors will reach the end of their initial life cycle by 2029. Among them is the Wolsong 1 reactor whose original lifespan ended in 2012.

The Nuclear Security and Safety Commission, however, decided in 2015 to extend its operation to 2022. President Moon said he would shut down Wolsong 1 as soon as possible, considering energy supply and demand.

On top of shutting down aging nuclear reactors, the new administration will also scrap construction plans for new nuclear power plants. Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power is expected to scrap plans to build two plants in Uljin and two more in Yeongdeok, both on the east coast. To tackle the ultrafine dust threatening health, the administration has also vowed to stop building new coal-fired power plants while shutting down aging ones.

However, experts say the transition to clean and safe energy will not be easy.

Nuclear energy accounts for 31 percent of the country's total power generation, while 39 percent comes from coal-fired plants.

According to President Moon's campaign pledge, the ratio of nuclear energy will fall to 18 percent in 2030 and coal-fired to 25 percent, while the ratio of LNG energy will double to 37 percent and renewable sources will jump to 20 percent from 4.7 percent last year.

Though clean and safe, LNG and renewable energies are much more costly than nuclear and coal-fired plants.

According to KEPCO, it costs 101 won ($0.10) to generate 1kWh from an LNG power plant, and 110 won from renewable energy; while the cost is 68 won for nuclear and 74 won for coal-fired plants.

Raising electricity rates is thus inevitable, and it is likely to hit businesses. According to KEPCO, industries consumed 56.1 percent of electricity sold last year, which compares with only 13.7 percent consumed by households. However, industrial facilities are levied at 107 won per kWh, much cheaper than the 124 won for households. According to the Korea Energy Economics Institute, one-third of small exporters may suffer deficits if electricity rates for industrial use are raised by 30 percent.

"Everybody would want to switch to renewable sources, but there is a gap between the ideal and reality. Consumers should first ask themselves if they are ready to pay more in return for clean air and safety," an official at the energy ministry said. In Germany, electricity rates for households rose 78 percent over a 10-year period, amid its transition from nuclear to renewable energy.

Experts also point out transitioning to renewable energy takes time.

"It is important to expand independent and eco-friendly renewable energy, but it is also crucial to maintain harmony between diverse values that determine the country's energy mix," said Park Chan-kook, a researcher at the institute, pointing out that energy security and economics should matter as much as eco-friendliness and social acceptance.

"The government should be cautious while closing nuclear and coal-fired plants, considering the (slow) pace of renewable energy expansion."

Yoon Ja-young


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