14 December 2013

South Korea’s Marine Power Dilemma

At the opening of the world’s largest tidal energy station, South Korea’s Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Plant, the nation’s president hailed the project as a landmark exemplifying the low carbon journey the world must take. But at what cost?

President Lee Myung-bak’s vision of ocean energy as an integral part of South Korea’s future has resulted in the nation becoming awash with plans to build marine power plants. Yet, to date, only the Sihwa plant operates at full capacity. 

According to the nation’s Ministry of Knowledge Economy, the 245 megawatts (MW) plant provides enough electricity for 500,000 residents. And according to President Lee, it will save the country more than 860,000 barrels of oil as well as an import bill of US$93 million that comes with it. In addition, the president claimed the plant will reduce the country’s emissions by 320,000 tonnes per year.

Energy crisis

Irrespective of the nation’s rich history of innovative engineering in the power sector, South Korea is undergoing an energy crisis. During the summer months, the blistering heat forces Korean homes and business to revel in their air conditioning. Similarly, during the freezing-cold winters, the nation turns to both electric and gas heaters to keep themselves warm. But, it is not the country’s extreme climate to blame (contrary to what many politicians are claiming), it is the fault of nation’s precarious power sector and its lack of investment.

To many this many seem odd, as the merits of South Korean ingenuity in the fields of coal, gas and nuclear power generation have spread to all corners of the world, and have received high acclaim for their work from governments and competitor corporations alike. But, the evidence of a system failing has been brought to the fore by the number of blackouts that continue to dog the nation.

In 2011, a country-wide five hour blackout hit the nation’s biggest cities and caused mayhem on an unprecedented scale − Indeed, I remember being stuck in a cramped lift in downtown Seoul for over an hour, and on the drive home out of the city centre, traffic lights were incapacitated and street lighting was, at best, sporadic.

At the root of the nation’s energy problems are two issues. First, the country is reliant on oil, gas and coal imports. For some time, all three have been trading towards the higher-end of pricing, thus significantly contributing towards the nation’s import bill. In addition to this, the government continues to subsidise energy at extortionate rates. For example, farmers receive up to 80% of their electricity paid for by the state. And, even the multinational chaebols that make billions of dollars per annum receive a 10% discount on their energy bill.

The truth is that no one in South Korea will be able to transform the state of the nation’s power sector soon – not even the country’s President-elect, Park Geun-hye − despite claims from the International Energy Agency that such a transformation could take place imminently.

Marine power

In a bid to overcome the nation’s power crisis, the nation’s lawmakers rolled out its nationwide Renewable Portfolio Standard, which requires utilities to generate 2% of its energy from renewable sources.

As a peninsular, South Korea is exposed to the Yellow Sea in the west, the Korea Strait in the south, and the Sea of Japan to the east, thus making marine energy a strong candidate for utilities looking to boost their renewable energy portfolio.

Notably, the large tides of the Yellow Sea present a source of energy ideal for being harnessed on a large scale. In fact, South Korea’s tides have a range of up to six meters, according to information provided by the Republic of Korea Coast Guard. This is on average higher than those of other nations. For example, most of the US coast has a tidal range of around 1.5 meters, according to data supplied by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Also, much of the west and south coasts are prone to powerful waves that are caused by strong winds that blow in form the West Pacific Ocean and East China Sea. The Korean peninsular experiences cold, dry winters with a strong northerly monsoon blowing from December to March. Average temperatures during this period are −10°C in the north and 3°C in the south. From June to September, summers are wet and warm with frequent typhoons, with temperatures averaging 28°C nationwide.

The sea surrounding South Korea too has a warm cyclone current. The peninsular is prone to the Kuroshio Current that diverges near the south-western tip of South Korea and flows into the Yellow Sea at a speed of over 1 km per hour. In addition, the Tsushima Current, which stems from the Kuroshio Current, heads northeast into the Sea of Japan at a similar speed and brushes south-eastern coast of the peninsular.

At a reported cost of over US$6 billion, South Korea has over 20 marine power projects with a combined capacity of 3,200 MW in the pipeline. Although how many of these will eventually be built is unclear. Plus, the capacity of each project is equally as vague and subject to change.

For example, the Ganghwa Tidal Power Plant was initially announced as a 812 MW project in 2009. However, it has since been downgraded to a 420 MW project with its completion date slated at anytime between 2017 and 2020, depending on where one reads.

The same can be said for the Wando Power Plant; a marine current project. In 2007, its manufacturers – Voith Siemens Hydro and Renetec − touted the plant as a 600 MW project. However, in September 2012, the plants developer, Jindo’s provincial government, confirmed with Bloomberg the plant’s capacity to stand at 200 MW. Similarly, the Uldolmok marine current project was slated as a 90 MW project, but to date only operates as a 1 MW pilot plant. Clearly, there is a gap between the nation’s plans and their fulfilment.

The most impressive of all proposed marine power projects is the Incheon Tidal Power Plant, which is expected to top 1,320 MW in generating capacity and which dwarfs all other marine power projects. Its construction and development costs are expected to reach US$3.4 billion, which will be funded almost entirely by the private sector. The plant is schedule to open in June 2017. However, whether it appears in this form is subject to much speculation, both in South Korea and abroad.

The environment

The environmental challenges that face the country’s marine energy plans are significant.

Environmentalists claim the nation’s plans will not only destroy biodiversity, but will ultimately diminish the nation’s vibrant fishing industry, eco-tourism trade and increase the risk of flooding around coastal areas.

The proposed projects will eradicate flat wetlands that support unique ecosystems and host tens of thousands of migratory birds. Indeed, the proposed location of these two tidal power plants also raises problems, as they would threaten ecologically important wetlands that are protected under Korean law. The project sites near Incheon host tens of thousands of migratory birds that travel along the East Asian–Australian Flyway, including the Black-faced Spoonbill, a species that is listed as an endangered wildlife species by the nation’s Ministry of Environment and is classified as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Unfortunately for environmentalists, South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs reserves the right to rescind natural heritage sites or cancel wetland preservation when the public interest is at stake. This was exemplified in 2010, where the national government stripped protection from Baweenupgoobi wetland, a critical habitat for natural heritage and endangered plants and animals, to allow dredging for the controversial Four Rivers Project.

Indeed, the unique landscape character of Korea’s tidal flats is becoming ever-rare. According to a 2008 report, more than half of the tidal flats in South Korea were drained or filled between 1910 and 2007. Around 2,900 km2 had been destroyed with just 2,550 km2 remaining.

Local communities, too, stand to loose much. The nation’s fishing community anticipates disruptive impacts to the tidal flat and fisheries, which today provide livelihoods for around 2,800 fishermen and have sustained a unique local culture for generations. Environmental NGOs and experts have brought up other potential problems, such as instability of electricity supply, damage to landscapes due to transmission facilities, and flooding.

Cost benefit analysis

None of the proposed projects have factored into their cost benefit analysis their environmental impact. For example, in June 2011 the Incheon Development Institute reported that the cost-benefit analysis for Incheon Bay Tidal Power Plant was flawed. Rather than returning a benefit-cost ratio of US$2.10 in benefits for every dollar spent, the new study reported a return of around 82 cents for every dollar spent, thus making the plant uneconomical to build.

Similar studies were carried out on other proposed projects, which resulted in similar findings.


On one hand, South Korea’s marine power projects put a high priority on economic growth and national industrial competitiveness, but on the other overlook local community welfare and energy democracy.

The country needs more sustainable sources of power, and its coasts provide a perfect solution to this. However, most marine power sites are unique marine ecosystems, with habitat for migratory marine animals and shorebirds. Even when tidal power plants seem economically feasible, they create ecological disturbances for which it may be difficult to assign an economic cost, such as reduced salinity, weaker currents, and reduced water exchange.

The South Korean government therefore finds itself in a catch-22 situation. But, what is clear is that greater research is required into better harmonising the natural environment with marine power engineering.

In addition, project developers must also be realistic in their appraisal of prospective sites. To date, nearly all marine projects have under-delivered in some shape or form. Therefore, additional research into the true potential of marine power needs to be uncovered. Otherwise, we will never know the full benefit and potential of this largely underused form of renewable energy.

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