South Korea fires up on renewables, plans to close more coal plants

SEOUL: As renewable energy powers up in South Korea, coal-fired generation, long the bedrock of the country’s electricity supply, is being tapped to give up room.
Facing choking smog in its major cities and under pressure to meet emission reduction targets, the world’s fourth-biggest coal importer is expected to accelerate targets for green energy in an updated 15-year energy plan later this year.
Long seen as a laggard with Japan in moving away from coal, the government now looks set to close some 20 ageing coal-fired generators and broaden operating caps at others, say advisers and energy experts.
“We have a big challenge ahead to reduce carbon emissions. To some degree, we could do it by expanding renewable power but that won’t be enough to cut emissions so we need to think about reducing coal power and weigh the costs of that change,” said Park Jong-bae, professor of electrical engineering at Konkuk University.
South Korea began its transition to cleaner energy in a 2017 power supply plan that aimed to boost the share of renewables from about 6 per cent to 20 per cent by 2030, while scaling back coal and unpopular nuclear.
Amid public anger, the government in March designated pollution a “social disaster”, and a month later pledged to boost renewable energy to up to 35 per cent of total energy supplies by 2040.
The 2019 energy plan is expected to reflect the push for even more renewables and more gas-fired power at the expense of coal, imported from countries such as Indonesia, Australia and Russia.
Coal imports fell nearly 9 per cent in the first four months of 2019 when coal’s share of the country’s energy mix fell by more than 5 percentage points to around 37 per cent, although most of the slack was taken up by nuclear, rather than renewables. Nuclear energy, spurned in the wake of Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster, is set to fall by 2030 as older plants close.
South Korea operates some 60 coal power plants, mainly owned by state-run utilities, which last year supplied about 42 per cent of the country’s electricity.
Over the next 15 years, the government had initially planned to retrofit some 20 of these with anti-pollution gear when they reached 30 years of age in a bid to extend their operating lifespan, but this has been shelved.
A “shared understanding” has emerged that “retrofitting is not that cost-worthy,” said Seok Kwang-hoon, a member of the government’s power supply plan working group and an adviser at civic group Green Korea. — Reuters