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[Green Paradox] Three things holding back Korea’s solar takeoff

An aerial image of Korea’s biggest solar power plant, in Haenam, South Jeolla Province (Hanyang)
An aerial image of Korea’s biggest solar power plant, in Haenam, South Jeolla Province (Hanyang)

As part of President Moon Jae-in’s Green New Deal initiative, South Korea is rolling out solar farms more than ever before.

Last year, the country installed 53,454 new solar farms worth 4.1 gigawatts, a record annual increase, according to the Korea Energy Agency. The record is set to be broken, as another 4.4 GW are planned this year.

Despite the country’s bold ambitions, experts say Korea lacks grid infrastructure, clear rules and proper incentives to support the staggering quantitative growth of the local solar power industry.

Grid shortages

No matter how much electricity solar farms generate, they have to be connected to a power grid to supply and sell electricity.

According to Korea Electric Power Corp., which manages the nation’s entire energy supply network, 4.2 gigawatts of small-scale solar farms in Korea remain disconnected as of November.

Another set of data released by Democratic Party Rep. Lee Sung-man, shows some 37 percent of the 88,919 facilities that have requested for an access to the grid between 2016 and August last year were forced to remain idle, despite being ready to become fully operational any time.

Grid shortages stem from the government’s failure to catch up with the proliferation of panels, despite its ambitious plan to expand the national solar capacity to 45.6 GW by 2034 from an estimated 13.4 GW this year.

“The government is not responding properly to the grid demand. To speed up the energy transition, the grid shortage issue must be resolved as soon as possible,” Lee said.

The problem is more acute in regions that led solar growth in the country, namely the South and North Jeolla provinces. Nearly half of newly established solar farms there remain disconnected, according to data from the lawmaker’s office.

Kepco says it will first tackle 3.2 GW of the total disconnected 4.2 GW by this year. As for the remaining 1 GW, it promised to shorten the construction period of substations to three years from six years and alleviate grid access limits to 12 megawatts from 10 MW.

Unclear rules

Industry insiders have long complained that a lack of clear rules and standards have caused confusion in the field.

In Korea, heads of local governments have the authority to make or break solar projects in their jurisdiction. But local regulations are inconsistent, particularly on the required minimum distance between solar farms and existing structures or habitable spaces. What’s worse, most of the rules seem to have been put in place arbitrarily without any evidence-backed support, according to local civic group Solutions for Our Climate.

Regulations in Jinju in South Gyeongsang Province stipulates that solar farms should be at least 500 meters away from roads. In response to a query by a city councilor to explain the reason behind the 500 meter-rule, a city official said, “it was difficult to find the exact answer as to whether 300 meters or 500 meters are more appropriate. After internal discussion, we decided to go for 500 meters.”

Muan in South Jeolla Province has swung back and forth on setting the buffer distance for solar farms in the past years. Challenged by a city councilor to explain exactly how solar farms cause damage to local residents and what difference there is between 100 meters and 300 meters, the city’s official in charge also could not give a clear answer.

“Due to so many complaints from local residents and serious conflicts, we looked into separation distances set by other municipalities and decided our separation distance,” the official said.

With an aim to set down clear guidelines, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy in 2017 introduced recommendations for the requirements. Yet, as they were not legally binding, 83 local governments had ignored the guidelines by setting their own distance regulations in 2017. Last year, the figure increased 48 percent to 123 local governments.

“Heads of local governments, who are elected by local residents, have the motive to suppress solar power development businesses as much as possible to minimize complaints from the residents. To this end, they have competitively put in place regulations,” an SFOC official said.

As solar farms are increasingly built in rural areas where land is cheap, complaints from local residents have been rising steadily.

At least 1,483 complaints were filed between 2015 to the first half of 2019, according to government data. Among those cases, 40 percent were about infringing on one’s right to health and to enjoy one’s living space, 27 percent on the destruction of the environment, 18 percent on the infringement of property rights and 15 percent on concerns of natural disasters.

To alleviate concerns of local residents, the government has been running a program since 2017 that allows five or more local residents to co-invest into solar farms with developers, allowing them to enjoy up to a 12.92 percent share of the profits generated by the solar farms.

However, the program hasn’t been well received by local residents, as only 22 solar farms were built under the program so far as of last year, according to Rep. Lee.

To tackle disorganized regulations, the industry ministry announced on Jan. 31 that it would introduce standardized regulations for solar farms that are legally binding.

Subsidy cuts

Government incentives are crucial for the development of the renewable energy sector, as it can’t yet compete against the established fossil fuel energy, such as coal and gas.

For solar farms, which generate most energy during midday but becomes redundant after sunset when electricity demand actually peaks, storage is essential.

An energy storage system, or ESS, is basically a huge battery the size of a container that stores leftover electricity when demand is low and discharges the saved electricity during peak hours.

However, starting this year, the government scrapped incentives for the ESS entirely. Previously, solar farms linked with the ESS were given subsidies five times greater than independent ones.

“Generous subsidies have triggered an overinvestment issue (by developers) and there have been some cases in which the subsidy program was abused,” an industry ministry official said.

The ministry plans to spend the money saved from halting ESS subsidies, about 18.2 billion won this year, in establishing public ESS. Efficiency-wise, running one big facility is better than small facilities dispersed all around the country, the official explained.

Industry insiders argue that it is not the time for Korea to roll back subsidies.

They claim such a drastic cut will deal a blow to local firms, smaller ones in particular, and it goes against the global trend of expanding renewable subsidies.

Experts, too, have expressed concerns.

Given the country’s strong push for renewable energies and the share of solar to the national energy mix, ESS should be seen as a matter of energy security, they point out.

“The more Korea relies on renewable energy, the more vulnerable its energy security becomes,” a Posco Research Institute official said.

Abrupt changes in weather conditions could influence energy supply from solar and wind farms, the two pillars of the country’s renewable energy plan, the researcher explained.

Without a well thought-out measure for supply stability, which would include ESS, the country’s plan to spike its dependence on such unreliable energy sources entails a great risk, the researcher added.

South Korea has set a target of boosting renewables — mostly solar and wind power — to account for 40.3 percent of the nation’s electricity generation capacity by 2034, according to an official energy blueprint for the years 2020-2034 released on Dec. 28.

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