To lead in energy, Korea has to shed some chains

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To lead in energy, Korea has to shed some chains

What should Korea do after the World Energy Congress?

Two years ago, Daegu was in the world’s spotlight when top athletes visited the city for the World Athletics Championships. The city was again in the spotlight last week, hosting the 22nd World Energy Congress.

I found the city quieter and calmer this time, perhaps because the event last week dealt with more serious (or maybe not as entertaining) issues such as energy, the environment, the global economy and social equality.

However, this doesn’t mean that the event wasn’t successful or unimportant. In fact, the 22nd World Energy Congress was the largest congress ever in its 90-year history. From Sunday to Thursday, it drew more than 7,000 participants from 120 countries.

The participants included 272 speakers from 73 countries, which is also the largest number at a WEC, according to organizers. With casual visitors included, organizers guess that perhaps 30,000 people visited the world’s largest energy meeting.

Industry insiders said that the popularity of this year’s event indicated that people were paying more attention to energy issues now than ever before. The congress ended with the announcement of the “Daegu Declaration,” the first time in the congress’ history that a declaration with the host government addressed the world’s important energy issue and asked the global energy community to establish a framework for a sustainable global energy system.

The congress may have been the springboard for Korea to upgrade its status in the energy world. But can we take advantage of the momentum?

As many speakers mentioned during the congress, Korea is now seen to be a key player in energy development in Northeast Asia, serving as a model for others to emulate in terms of green-growth policies and cutting-edge energy technology such as energy storage systems and smart grids.

President Park Geun-hye said during her speech at the congress that the country would also make the energy industry one of the leading horses in her “creative economy.” Park said she wants to develop a 3.5 trillion won ($3.3 billion) market, 15,000 new jobs and reduce energy consumption by 1 million kilowatts by 2017.

To achieve these high goals, industry watchers said the Korean government must first refresh its perception of the private sector and help it grow.

A senior official of the World Energy Council told this reporter during the congress that the Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy wasn’t very cooperative with the WEC from the start, and that its bureaucracy had created some problems in promoting the event. This official, who asked for anonymity, claimed that he got the impression that the Korean government was not that interested in the Daegu Congress.

The attitude of the ministry could be explained by the fact that Korea is a country where the government and state-run companies have led the energy sector. Because the Daegu Congress was the largest energy event which private companies and scholars participated in, the government would have felt that it was “invading” their sacred area. But trends in the energy world have been changing, and the private sector is expanding.

In fact, from Thomas Edison to John Rockefeller, the energy revolution started with private investment. No wonder Peter Voser, the CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, was one of the speakers who drew the most attention.

That indicates that the government should abandon its arrogance and act quickly to stay ahead of the paradigm shift that the shale gas boom in the United States suggests.

Another task for the Korean government will be gaining the trust of Koreans and boosting energy security in the homeland before talking about global activism.

Koreans suffered one of their hottest summers because of concerns about blackouts. Experts and lawmakers have said that the biggest reason for power shortages this summer was the government’s poor estimate of power demand. According to data from Representative Jung Soo-sung, more than 1.1 trillion won has been wasted during the last 10 years because of the government’s faulty estimates of power demand.

A regular visitor to these congresses whom this reporter met said it was amusing that Korea couldn’t solve its own energy problem but was still announcing that it could step up as a global player in the energy world.

The successful hosting of the World Energy Congress did upgrade the reputation of Korea in the global energy community, but let’s remember that there is still a long way to go, and the government’s real tasks begin now.

By Joo Kyung-don [kjoo@joongang.co.kr]

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