|President Moon Jae-in talks with ministers and the North Jeolla Province governor at a solar energy plant in Gunsan in the province, Tuesday. From left are Moon, Governor Song Ha-jin, Trade, Industry and Energy Minister Sung Yun-mo and Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister Kim Hyun-mee. / Yonhap|
By Nam Hyun-woo
Economists and environmentalists are voicing concerns over President Moon Jae-in's "pet project" to create a massive solar and wind energy farm in Saemangeum, a reclaimed land project off the coast of Gunsan, North Jeolla Province.
They say the project's feasibility is doubtful because the actual power expected to be produced at the farms would be far below the government's anticipation and end up resulting in an electricity price hike.
Environmentalists also say covering the area with solar panels will pose a threat to the area's ecosystem.
President Moon visited the area Tuesday and announced the project of establishing a 3 gigawatt solar power farm covering 38 square kilometers of land in the area, which he said will be the largest solar power farm in the world.
On waters off the Saemangeum Seawall, a 1 gigawatt offshore wind farm will also be built. The government expects the 4 gigawatt capacity is equal to power generated by four nuclear plants.
For the project, the government said it will attract 10 trillion won ($8.77 billion) of private capital by guaranteeing the state-run power distributor Korea Electric Power Corp. (KEPCO) buys electricity at nearly twice the electricity price consumers pay.
Experts say however, the project lacks economic feasibility and will likely trigger an electricity price hike in the future.
"Last year, KEPCO paid 209 won per kilowatt-hour to solar power generators and received 110 won from consumers in electricity fees," said Jeong Yong-hoon, a professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.
"When we add other costs for transmission, distribution and subsidies to LNG power producers which will cover the off-time of solar power generators, the actual cost for KEPCO will likely surpass 300 won. In this structure, KEPCO will end up accumulating losses."
Jeong said solar energy is and will remain as one of the most costly energy sources in Korea because of the country's lack of sufficient sunshine, stressing the government's belief that solar power will become cheaper in the future "does not make sense."
"If you want to look into the feasibility of solar power generation in a country, you can find answer in the country's grape price, because it is heavily dependent on the amount of sunshine in the country," he said. "No matter how hard Korean farmers try, they can't compete against Chilean grape in terms of price, because it is a natural environment which cannot be changed by human efforts."
He expects KEPCO will suffer losses up to 364.2 billion won from the Saemangeum project every year.
Roh Dong-seok, a senior research fellow at the Korea Energy Economics Institute, also echoed Jeong's view that solar energy has its limits.
"Though the project seems to be aimed at making solar energy profitable for those who want to participate in the project, its true meaning is it will add to electricity prices for consumers," Roh said. "The government keeps saying renewable energy is good and what we should do, but it does not talk about the consumer burden."
According to Roh, Korea's solar energy utilization rate is averaged to 15 percent, meaning the 4 gigawatt facilities may end up generating less than 1 gigawatt. The utilization rate refers to a generator's amount of actual power generation compared to the amount it is capable of generating in a certain period time.
"Solar energy's utilization rate and amount of electricity produced fluctuate depending on the time and the natural environment of the installed region. Compared to nuclear power, solar energy is less economical."
Environmentalists also expressed their concern for the facilities' potential damage to the ecosystem in the area.
"The concept of developing a preserved area to make massive wind and solar energy farms will strip endangered animals, such as spoonbills, of their ecosystem," an official at North Jeolla Chapter of Green Korea said.