From coal to clean energy: Can South Korea’s mining towns make the switch?

JEONGSEON, South Korea: The rows of solar panels in Jeongseon county stand in stark contrast to what surrounds the gleaming installations.

Jeongseon is coal country. Up until the 1990s, there were as many as 500 coal mines in operation. Now there are three. Gangwon province, which Jeongseon is part of, provided the power that fuelled South Korea’s post-war growth. 

For several years under different administrations, the South Korean government has made numerous pledges to move away from a heavy dependence on fossil fuels to renewables, by focusing on more environmentally friendly industries.

President Moon Jae-in did the same this year. He introduced what was dubbed the Green New Deal, as part of a wider strategy of transforming South Korea’s heavily polluting industries into greener ones, while steering Asia’s fourth-largest economy out of a coronavirus-induced stupor.

READ: South Korea’s Green New Deal ‘stunningly ambitious’ for one of region’s top polluters

Under this ambitious plan, the government promised to invest about US$60 billion in renewable power sources and smart grids. The aim was to more than double the share of renewables in South Korea’s energy mix from the current 15 per cent to 40 per cent by 2034.

MAKING GANGWON GREEN

Gangwon province, with its plentiful supply of coal, played a big role in the economic development of South Korea. But with the Green New Deal, things could be changing. 

“We know that is the direction to go,” Gangwon governor Choi Moon-Soon said recently on the sidelines of a forum in Jeongseon county. “We helped develop our nation into what it is today with the coal mines then. But now we want to bring back fresh and clean air to this area.”

Spread out across the province today are hundreds of solar power plants and wind farms. Counties have offered up land for free, hoping to lure companies into making investments in renewable energy.

Wind turbines in Jeongseon county, South Korea
Wind turbines in Jeongseon county, South Korea, which had as many as 500 coal mines until the 1990s. (Photo: Lim Yun Suk)

Korea Heating District Corporation is one firm that took the plunge. In return for the free use of a plot of land in Jeongseon county for 20 years, the company set up solar panels that generate enough electricity for the monthly needs of 200 households.

For a county with a population of 37,000, the figure seems insignificant. But even little steps count, said the company.

“It’s one of our projects that’s in line with the government’s plan. We turned this abandoned land into this power plant and profits from here are also shared with the residents,” said Jang Won-seok, general manager of company’s renewables division.

Aside from solar and wind energy, Governor Choi also has plans to add hydrogen into the mix.

“By using coal that we have from this area, we are coming up with technology to change coal into hydrogen,” he said.

“We are planning to have a plant soon and we will continue to upgrade our technology so that we can meet the changing needs of climate change.”

STILL RELIANT ON COAL 

The Green New Deal sets out to achieve zero net emissions by 2050, a target environmentalists say simply is not achievable if provinces like Gangwon take only incremental steps.

Data in 2017 showed that the South Korea’s annual greenhouse gas emissions reached a record high of more than 700 million tons.

“There were several reasons for that increase,” said Kwon Woo-Hyun, an energy and climate change coordinator at the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements. “But the most important one is that we have too many coal power plants running.”

Coal mine in Gangwon province 2
Jeongseon county in Gangwon province used to be home to as many as 500 coal mines until the 1990s. They provided the coal that powered a South Korea recovering from the Korean War. Only three are still open today. (Photo: Lim Yun Suk)

Mr Kwon is also baffled by the government’s seemingly conflicting goals.

“The main way to cut greenhouse gas is to cut down the number of coal-fired plants. But the government is giving out more permits for coal-fired plants to operate while saying it wants to tackle climate change,” he said.

There are about 60 coal-powered plants across South Korea and around half of them have life cycles ending by 2034. But the government also has plans for seven more large coal-fired power plants by 2022. 

READ: Jobs come first in South Korea’s ambitious ‘Green New Deal’ climate plan

South Korea, which imports nearly all of the oil that it needs, has more than 20 nuclear reactors that generate about 19 per cent of the country’s electricity. The government wants to cut that down to 10 per cent by 2034.

As for that target to boost the share of renewables in the energy mix from 15 per cent to 40 per cent by 2034, Mr Kwon of Korea Federation for Environmental Movements remains doubtful.

“It’s unsure how the government plans to achieve that without taking drastic steps.” 

Other environmentalists say incentives must be provided to wean the country off its reliance on coal.

Coal mine in Gangwon province 1
Jeongseon county in Gangwon province used to be home to as many as 500 coal mines until the 1990s. They provided the coal that powered a South Korea recovering from the Korean War. Only three are still open today. (Photo: Lim Yun Suk)

“We need to come up with alternatives and then get rid of the coal-powered plants. We can’t just shut them down because they are all related to the livelihood of that area,” said Choi Yul, chairman of Korea Green Foundation.

“For example, we need to make sure residents there can get alternative jobs and set up a system for them so we can quickly switch.”