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ANALYSISWill Korea be able to achieve RE100?

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Global, local environment advocacies criticize Korea's lowered dependence on renewables

By Lee Kyung-min

Local energy authorities are grappling with two contradictory objectives: securing a stable supply of energy and achieving carbon neutrality. Granted, spearheading the two goals at equal weight was not without hurdles a few years ago, when a growing number of local firms said they would embrace RE100. The initiative led by Climate Group seeks to help influential businesses commit to 100 percent renewable energy while seeking zero-carbon grids on a global scale.

But things have taken a turn for the worse over the past few years ― far worse.

Sustained increases in global key commodity prices show no signs of stabilizing, 10 months after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The volatile war-triggered crisis is a major doomsday scenario for export-reliant Korea, which relies on imports to meet 97 percent of its energy needs.

Should Korea make a course correction to revise energy policy directives to best help local firms procure electricity sources for stable industrial production, even when it means a delayed effort to meet the global decarbonization initiative?

This seems to be the approach of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, as illustrated by the statements released to refute local news media reports.

Many left-leaning media outlets have criticized the government for reducing the reliance on renewables for power generation sources to 21.6 percent, down from the initial target of 30.2 percent, raising concerns of Korea becoming left out in the global drive for a greener future.

Government officials and academic experts attend the 10th public hearing on the country's energy supply policies at the Sejong Government Complex, Nov. 28. Courtesy of Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy
Government officials and academic experts attend the 10th public hearing on the country's energy supply policies at the Sejong Government Complex, Nov. 28. Courtesy of Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy

Overblown claim?

"A stable supply of energy is the way to help fortify the competitiveness of local manufactures and key industries at large," the ministry said in a statement, Nov. 29. "The news reports that the reduced reliance on renewables diminishes the country's competitiveness is a claim that is both overblown and misleading."

Providing stable, cost-efficient energy sources of great quality is the primary job of the government, according to Kang Kam-chan, a ministry official in charge of power generation industrial policies.

According to the ministry, the energy policy pursued during the previous five years with a greater emphasis on the supply of new and renewable energy led to an annual average increase of 3.5 gigawatts (GW) in the capacity of new and renewable facilities and 10 percent in power generation, respectively.

The figures show how challenging the goal of meeting the 21.6 percent target will be, it added.

Raising the figure to 21.6 percent by 2030 will not be possible unless the annual average rate in facility capacity is increased to 5.3 GW and power generation by 17.7 percent, the ministry said.

"A goal that neglects feasibility threatens stable power management, and the needs of each country should be duly reflected. An expansion of renewables will be promoted via deregulation and launching a low-carbon energy source market, as part of market diversification efforts," he added.

The response came a day after the ministry held the 10th public hearing on the country's energy supply policies, Nov. 28.

The ministry had adopted a more measured tone at the hearing, saying that local firms will be able to gradually pursue the RE100 drive, as enabled by the rate of renewables being raised to 30.6 percent by 2036.

"It will be extremely challenging for us to meet the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) goal of reducing 149 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, not to mention the target of 21.6 percent," Lee Ho-hyeon, an energy ministry official responsible for enhancing energy efficiency, said during the hearing at the Sejong Government Complex. "But we will seek to achieve it despite the challenges."

Climate Group letter

Lee's comments were reflective of concerns raised last month by Climate Group, a global environment advocacy leading RE100.

Climate Group's Executive Director of Systems Change Mike Peirce sent a letter to President Yoon Suk-yeol, asking that Korea "take swift, decisive action to revise this plan."

Peirce recommended that Korea increase the renewable energy target in line with the 2050 Carbon Neutrality Goal, saying the reduction to 21.6 percent is a significant retreat and puts the country at risk of lagging behind other developed nations.

Also needed are strengthened efforts to streamline siting and permitting rules to ensure consistent improvements across local governments.

Korea should, he added, focus on enabling the rapid upscaling of the domestic renewables supply by ensuring equal grid access and fair compensation for renewable electricity generators and promoting investment in systems that increase grid flexibility.

"With businesses seeking to achieve 100 percent renewable electricity, failing to act urgently and decisively to expand renewable energy hinders the economic potential of Korea," Peirce said.

According to the advocacy, 28 major Korean firms are RE100 members, consuming 77TWh of electricity every year, representing significant energy demand in the country. A total of 52 global RE100 members operate in the country.

"Korea is regularly cited by our members as one of the most challenging geographies in which to procure renewable electricity, where members currently only consume 2% of electricity from renewable sources," the letter said.

Meanwhile, a total of 17 local environmental groups urged the government at the Nov. 28 hearing to scrap plans to extend the lifespan of old nuclear power plants, as well as the building of new ones. Also needed, they added, were rapid fossil-fuel reduction measures, and an increased use of renewables.


Lee Kyung-min lkm@koreatimes.co.kr


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