A question of power

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A question of power

South Koreans experienced rare nationwide blackouts and power cuts for several hours on Thursday as an unseasonable heat wave caused overuse of electricity. Elevators and traffic lights were stopped in urban areas while industrial and farming activities were disrupted due to the power outages.

Electricity authorities enforced rolling blackouts in some parts of Seoul and other parts of the country in fear of a nationwide blackout. Demand exceeded Thursday’s power supply capacity of 70 million kilowatts after daytime temperatures hovered above 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).

The government said some power plants were shut for regular maintenance, causing the temporary loss of capacity. The country’s full power capacity reaches 78 million kilowatts to 79 kilowatts, enough to meet Thursday’s demand.

But the problem was that 23 power plants were under regular maintenance that usually takes place in sequence during spring and autumn. But the fact is that an unseasonable heat wave before and after the Chuseok holiday had been forecast in advance. Authorities should have paid heed to the facts at hand instead of sticking to habit. That is not all: they warned the public only after the juice was cut off. No major accidents or losses were reported, but there was too much unnecessary fear and inconvenience.

The incident portends to bigger power problems in the future. The country’s power reserves are too low. The power reserve ratio slips to 5 percent to 8 percent during the summer peak in August, compared with 15 percent in other advanced economies. If the reserve ratio slips below 5 percent, rolling blackouts are inevitable.

Electricity demand naturally grows every year and a power shortage may be unavoidable next year.

Since we cannot expect immediate increases in supply - new plants aren’t scheduled to open until 2015 - we can only choose to use less energy. When an earthquake and tsunami battered power stations in Japan, the Tokyo government enforced an electricity usage cut of 15 percent.

Japanese people joined energy-saving campaigns and brought down their use of energy by 10 percent, leading to overall electricity consumption going down by 25 percent. Our government may have to consider raising electricity fees. The public may not like it but it’s better to save energy now to prevent bigger risks in the future.
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