South Korea’s Big Bet on Green Energy Is Bogged Down

SEOUL—Out in the sea east of Ulsan, South Korea’s pulsating industrial heartland, a new industry is rising and will eventually tower over the shipbuilding, car manufacturing, and petrochemical plants on land. Literally: Offshore windmills are very tall.

South Korea wants to bet big on green energy. The country has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050 and has recently announced plans to construct the world’s largest offshore floating wind farm at the price of about $32 billion.

But the Ulsan program is now facing a new set of challenges: To make a meaningful difference in energy supply, it needs to move farther out to sea and requires better technology. Yet Seoul appears intent on relying on South Korean industry alone to develop this, which could set back its plans. The government’s big ambitions are also prompting an outcry from South Korea’s giant fishing industry.

For the moment, the nation’s green ambitions to create 12 gigawatts of offshore wind power capacity—multiple times more than what it is producing today—far outpace its plans. And experts, activists, and even some in the industry raise doubts to whether South Korea has what it takes to truly become a green leader, even though Seoul just finished hosting a big international summit promoting green partnerships.

“If you look at the Dogger Bank wind farm [in the North Sea off England], which is already hundreds of square miles with multiple 14-15 megawatts wind turbines: That is only 3.6 gigawatts. We need ten times more in nine years’ time, and we need 20-to-30 times more to be carbon neutral,” said Chong Ng, head of research at Catapult, an innovation center for offshore renewable energy based in the United Kingdom.

One big problem, Ng added in an interview, is that “we don’t have space on the seabed anymore. The only way we can explore this wind resource is to go for deeper sea. To get to the deep sea, we need a floating wind turbine.”

That technology is not yet matured. Take the cables needed to anchor the windmills’ floating platforms to the seabed. They need to withstand the force of a windmill generating a massive amount of energy for 25 years, yet they also need to be detachable so the platforms and windmills can be taken in for inspection. That technology needs to be figured out.

Yet the administration of South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in wants the technology to be developed in South Korea, forgoing the expertise of major global players like Siemens, the German company. Speaking to Foreign Policy on background, representatives of several international wind power companies complained about the process of getting into the South Korean market. They cite a lack of transparency and a clear road map as to how the green transition is going to happen, but the biggest issue, they say, is the favoritism skewed toward South Korean companies. This means, according to the international giants, that the South Korean project will be slower, less efficient, and more expensive, because they will not have the latest and best technology.

“I don’t think any of the windmills in the UK are built in the UK. They just got the best technology from Siemens and these guys,” said Sam Macdonald, international solidarity coordinator for Friends of the Earth Korea, a climate-focused nongovernmental organization. “Whereas in Korea, it is still very nationally focused; it is still going to be Korean windmills made by Korean companies.”

Nonetheless, Moon has declared that he will make Ulsan the world’s leader in floating offshore wind.

“The Ulsan offshore floating wind farm will be like an oil field on the sea and usher in Korea’s future as an energy powerhouse,” Moon said at the announcement of the project last month.

The problem is the uncertainty of it all: whether the general political mood in South Korea is green enough for a project of this size to survive a coming election, the lack of international cooperation, and even whether the government is going to figure out how to please the fishing industry in Ulsan and be allowed to set up the turbines.

“The reality is, we’ve seen so many offshore wind project proposals so many times, people are just exhausted. Twelve gigawatts are a lot, it is a lot of money, but will we actually see something like this? I think a lot of people will question that,” Joojin Kim, managing director at Solutions for Our Climate, a South Korean NGO, told Foreign Policy.

“Offshore wind requires engaging with fishing stakeholders, it requires reshuffling certain regimes in ocean use. That is not going on. At least not at the speed it should be,” Kim said.

Local municipalities are in charge of building permits, so fishers from a village could complain to their local municipality about the installation of massive wind turbines that would hinder their fishing, and then the municipality could refuse to give the permit, halting the project.

“Permit schemes shouldn’t be deferred to these local authorities. It’s a typical thing that the government should preempt the local municipalities, but they’re just letting things happen,” Kim said.

In a statement, South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said the government was working on the issue. “Even if the marked area for the wind farm project is designated as a fishing area, the project can be carried out after securing the acceptance from stakeholders, including local fishermen and residents,” the statement said.

And whether low-level governments are committed to green energy is not the only question plaguing the massive wind project in South Korea. Is there actual high-level political will to make big decisions on green power?

“The Moon administration is even still taking a very wishy-washy position on new coal power plants, he often says in his speeches that ‘we decommissioned 10 coal power plants’; that is a very typical phrase that goes into his speeches,” Kim said.

“The plans to decommission the coal power plants that he mentions were actually established during the previous administration. With new nuclear power plants, they were very fast, quick and decisive. Moon canceled those plans, just a couple of months after he was sworn in. So, there is a very big ambivalence there,” he said.

Other critics agree that Moon is not necessarily ready to put his policies where his mouth is.

“The political instability, in terms of green policies, is quite high. China, and Taiwan, their political commitments are much stronger,” Ng said.

“China, there’s no other party to substitute, and with Taiwan, even though they have gone through a general election last year, its commitment towards green industries still remains,” he added.

Yet, despite all these issues, activists remain optimistic that South Korea will get greener. They believe that this wind project will have a positive impact on the country’s otherwise heavily coal-reliant power supply—at least for no other reason than that it must.

“The only option for Korea is offshore wind. My opinion is that solar is not a good option in Korea. There is no hydro,” Macdonald said. “Offshore wind is the only real option for massive renewable power.”