|Solar energy facilities installed in mountainous areas near the rural village of Cheoncheon, North Jeolla Province, are seen in this Aug. 21, 2019, file photo. Korea Times photo by Kim Joo-young.|
Rural residents near solar farms at risk of landslide damage
This article is the third in a series on various environment problems, government countermeasures and expert opinions on how to solve them. ― ED.
By Lee Hae-rin
Thousands of solar energy facilities have been built in rural mountainous regions in recent years, in line with a government policy to increase the ratio of renewable energy sources in the country's energy mix.
However, many of them have become danger zones as the removal of trees for their construction has heightened the possibility of landslides, becoming a major headache for local residents during the nation's annual rainy season. What is of more concern is that the installations are feared to end up destroying the landscape and environment through massive deforestation.
Seokdong Village in Gangjin County, South Jeolla Province, is one such village, where over 25,400 square meters of forest there were cut down to install solar panels in 2016.
But since then, soil has been washed away from the facilities during each summer's rainy season, and in July this year two meters of stone embankments and 20 meters of barbed wire fencing collapsed.
"As the rain poured in July, the solar facilities collapsed and the village's rice paddies were completely flooded. Fortunately, nobody was on site and hurt but if there had been, it would have caused many casualties," Lim Jun-hyung, the village head, told The Korea Times, Friday. "The company that installed the panels won't come to fix it for months, no matter how many times we call them. I can't even stand the sight of those panels now."
Gangseong Village in Gangjin County, South Jeolla Province, is another place that faces seasonal flooding which the residents claim is a result of the installation of solar panels.
"About 30 millimeters of rain fell just a few days ago, and the rice paddies and fields were covered with watery red clay from the mountains, just like red bean soup," Lee Hun-jae, the head of the village, told The Korea Times, also on Friday.
|Parts of a solar energy facility that collapsed following a landslide caused by heavy rainfall in Namwon, North Jeolla Province, are seen in this Aug. 9, 2019, file photo. Korea Times photo by Kim Joo-young|
"Flooding and soil collapse like this never happened before the installation of the solar panels. It's all because the trees on the mountains were cut down and so water can't be absorbed on days with heavy rain," he said.
The villagers even built an embankment along the agricultural area with their own money to protect it from landslides, but it also collapsed under heavy rain and ruined their harvest. "We demanded the solar panel company repair the panels and solve the problem after the monsoon, but we didn't receive any proper help," Lee added.
Most of the residents in the affected areas grow rice and they have had substantial financial losses.
"For the damage to rice paddies this summer, we received government relief funding that only covered the cost re-establishing the paddies. It's not even close to covering the loss of the harvest that the villagers spent an entire year growing. It's a pity, but there's nothing we can do," Lee said.
The full-scale construction of solar facilities in mountainous areas began four years ago.
|The construction of a solar energy facility is underway in a mountainous area of Namwon, North Jeolla Province, in this July 9, 2019, file photo. Korea Times photo by Kim Joo-young|
The calls for renewable energy are growing worldwide, but only 2.4 percent of the energy in Korea was produced from renewable sources at that time, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). So in October 2017 the government announced an energy conversion roadmap to increase the ratio to 20 percent.
Two months later, the government announced that more than 95 percent of new energy-generating facilities would be for renewable sources, and be built in cities, farm reservoirs, tidelands and mountains, in cooperation with local municipalities.
As of now, over 12,500 solar energy "farms" have been built across the country, and in doing so, over 2.3 million trees have been cut down, covering an area nine times the size of Yeouido, according to the Korea Forest Service. The government aims to increase the size of solar energy facilities fivefold over the next 14 years.
|In the left photo, a rural area in Iksan, North Jeolla Province, has forests and fields in August 2018. The same area is covered with solar energy panels in the right photo, taken Aug. 21, 2019, using a drone. Kakaomap / Korea Times photo by Kim Joo-young|
However, residents near these clean energy facilities claim they have had a larger number of landslides, and consequent damage, caused by heavy rainfall. They say the facilities are to blame because the mountains can no longer absorb water from the rain without trees, leading to the landslides.
But following an investigation in 2020, the Korea Forest Service said only 0.8 percent of the landslides occurred near solar farms, virtually rejecting the claims of a causal link between the installations and the land erosion.
A "landslide" is legally defined in Korea as soil collapse in a mountainous area due to natural or artificial causes according to the relevant law. The forest service says the number of landslides is increasing, regardless of the solar energy facilities, as instances of torrential rain are rising due to global warming.
|Officials of the Korea Forest Service inspect the construction of a landslide prevention wall in Bosong County, South Jeolla Province, in this July 2 photo. Courtesy of Korea Forest Service|
But the agency admits more than 80 percent of the facilities in mountains were built before the relevant law was revised to tighten regulations for construction.
In South Jeolla Province where Gangseong and Seokdong are located, 238 out of 3,720 solar farms were built in mountainous areas at Level 1 or 2 on the "landslide danger scale." The forest agency grades the likelihood of landslides in all mountains nationwide on a five-tier system, and Level 1 or 2 means the areas are at high risk.
Experts point out that to minimize future damage from landslides near solar farms, the authorities need to expand facilities gradually and grant permission under stricter standards by reviewing the topography of the area, as well as communicating sufficiently with residents.
"Such damage from landslides near solar farms, which were built before the strengthened regulations, was not expected at the time of construction. To reduce the chances of future damage, the authorities and the industry should monitor the already-built facilities for two to three years, and then start to build more if no major damage takes place," Jerng Dong-wook, a professor at Chung-Ang University's School of Energy Systems Engineering, told The Korea Times.
|Solar panels are installed on a mountain in Jangsu County, North Jeolla Province, in this July 8, 2019, file photo. Korea Times photo by Kim Joo-young|
"Additional safety checks should be made on facilities that are already built, and the governmental standards on topographical conditions to allow solar installations should be improved for those to be built. It's also important to communicate fully with the local community to prevent disputes with residents," Jerng said.
Even though the number of landslide cases directly linked to solar energy farms is small, the authorities should not bring down alert levels on the potential risk of future disasters, said Lee Soo-gon, a professor at the University of Seoul's Department of Civil Construction.
"The soil layers in mountains, which were removed during the construction of solar farms, will only continue to weaken whenever it rains, and become a weak spot for landslides in the long run. Without proper management of the facilities, sudden collapses and flooding can occur at anytime and cause serious damage," Lee said.