Seoul’s newly redesigned City Hall is going green. Up on its rooftop are just over 1000 solar panels that produce electricity and heat the building’s water.
Kook Joung-yean heads the City Hall’s energy division. He says the panels create nearly one-third of the building’s total energy needs.
But Kook says for all of Seoul to go green, it needs more than the government to switch to renewable energy.
“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.”
South Korea has limited natural resources. The World Bank estimates that more than 80 percent of Korea’s total energy consumption comes from foreign imports, mostly coal and petroleum.
Seoul City wants to set an example for making the entire nation less reliant on fossil fuels and develop home-grown sources of power.
“Renewable energy source is inevitable for Korea to maintain its sustainable development as well as the quality of life for the public,” says Park Ji-young, energy analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
Park says green energy projects, like those at Seoul’s City Hall, should be encouraged. She points out the national government too has plans for increased green energy independence, but they’re rather different than Seoul’s.
Nuclear power plants produce about a third of South Korea’s electricity. There are currently 23 facilities and over the next decade, the government plans to build 9 more.
Along with renewable technologies, bolstering nuclear power is a key part of South Korea’s roadmap for energy security.
Kim Jong-kyung is president of the Korea Nuclear Society. He says nuclear power does more than just reduce dependency on foreign imports – it is in fact a green technology, he says.
“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. Of course there are safety concerns, but as long as those are resolved, nuclear is the cleanest.”
That view, which is shared with the South Korean government, has invited much criticism from environmentalists.
“We think it’s one of the biggest green-washing propaganda,” says Lee Hee-song from Greenpeace in Seoul. “And we see no green elements in it at all. In fact the government is abusing the word green growth.”
South Korea is promoting its version of green growth overseas too.
It already won a multibillion-dollar contract to build nuclear reactors in the United Arab Emirates. And attention is now on winning deals in Southeast Asia.
This expansion of nuclear power runs contrary to the world’s growing scepticism of the industry, says Greenpeace’s Lee Heo-song.
“Korea is one of the few countries that adhere to a nuclear expansion policy even after Fukushima. While once pro nuclear countries, like Germany, Belgium and even Japan are phasing out the nuclear.”
South Korea’s push for more nuclear plants has come under closer scrutiny.
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 says the scandals just make 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.“
And Kook adds when that happens, South Korea will be truly energy independent.