South Korea is one of the world’s biggest energy consumers and importers. The government is planning to build more nuclear power plants to meet rising demand, but some cities believe renewable, green energy is a better path to energy independence.
Seoul’s newly redesigned City Hall is going green. Up on its rooftop are just over 1,000 solar panels that produce electricity and heat the building’s water.
Kook Joung-yean heads City Hall’s energy division. He said the panels provided 28 percent of the building’s total energy needs, but he hoped they had a greater symbolic impact.
“We want to encourage the private sector to invest in renewable energy too. We can show them how the solar panels work here at City Hall in hopes they will follow our lead,” he said.
South Korea has limited natural resources. The World Bank estimates that 82 percent of Korea’s total energy consumption comes from foreign imports, mostly coal and petroleum.
Park Ji-young, an energy analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said developing green technologies was one way to lessen that dependency.
“Renewable energy source is inevitable for Korea to maintain its sustainable development as well as the quality of life for the public," she said.
Park said green energy projects, like those at Seoul’s City Hall should be encouraged, but those alone could not satisfy all of the country’s needs.
Nuclear power plants produce about one third of South Korea’s electricity. There are currently 23 facilities and over the next decade, the government plans to build nine more. The reactors remain a key part of South Korea’s roadmap for energy security.
Kim Jong-kyung is president of the Korea Nuclear Society. Despite heightened concerns over nuclear power following Japan’s Fukushima disaster, Kim said nuclear reactors were in fact a green technology.
“The CO2 output of nuclear power is only 10 grams per kilowatt hour. Emissions from liquid natural gas for example are 55 times higher. That is why nuclear energy is green energy," he said. "Of course there are safety concerns, but as long as those are resolved, nuclear is the cleanest."
Safety concerns also have risen at some of South Korea’s nuclear plants. In the past year, three reactors have been taken off line after faked safety certificates were discovered. And some government officials have been fired or jailed for accepting bribes from parts suppliers.
Back at Seoul City Hall, energy supervisor Kook Joung-yean said those safety and corruption scandals just made solar panels and other green technologies more attractive.
“This technology is developing very fast and we have government support. So I think in the future these types of renewable energies will replace nuclear and other non-renewable sources,” he said.
And Kook added when that happened, South Korea would be truly energy independent.
Malte Kollenberg also contributed to this report.