Renewable project facing criticism

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Renewable project facing criticism

The government’s plan to build a renewable energy complex at Saemangeum, North Jeolla, is generating controversy as it deviates from plans to develop the reclaimed tidal flat into a regional economic hub and is being pursued without public approval.

The controversy flared up as President Moon Jae-in announced Tuesday that the government will construct a solar and wind energy complex at Saemangeum.

The government argues that around 10 trillion won ($8.7 billion) in private investment will flow into the project and that two million workers will be employed annually in the building of the facility.

Despite the optimistic forecasts, the move is being criticized as an abrupt policy shift.

When President Moon Jae-in visited Saemangeum last year, he mentioned developing the area into an economic hub for the Yellow Sea region but said nothing of solar or wind power. Opposition lawmakers have raised concerns about the projects.

“The government’s plan to make Saemangeum, previously touted to be developed into an economic center for the Yellow Sea, into a mecca of renewable energy means a policy change,” said Chung Dong-young, a lawmaker for the Jeolla-based Party for Democracy and Peace. “This is the same as abandoning plans to expedite the development of Saemangeum.”

The Party for Democracy and Peace, with 14 lawmakers from the Honam region, is especially angry about being bypassed.

In light of such concerns, the government has explained that plans for Saemangeum’s renewable energy complex, which will cover an area comparable to the size of four nuclear power plants, will not interfere with existing initiatives.

“The government’s determination to develop Saemangeum into an economic hub of the Yellow Sea area remains unchanged,” Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Kim Hyun-mee said during the annual audit by lawmakers on Monday.

A spokesman for the state-run Saemangeum Development and Investment Agency explained that it was not the right time for consultations with local residents and the general public.

“Taking comments from local residents is done during the construction approval process. We are not yet at the development stage, so we haven’t asked for [comments], but we are obviously planning to do so,” he said.

Opposition lawmakers and energy experts are suspicious that the plans for Saemangeum were changed to accommodate the Moon administration’s pledge to reduce nuclear power dependency.

The new Saemangeum initiative is part of the government’s 3020 renewable energy plan, which established a renewable target of 20 percent by 2030. With current renewable energy output at just 8 percent of the total, the government is in need of more solar and wind power plants.

“[The government] seems to be developing Saemangeum as there aren’t vast plots of land in the country suitable for solar or wind power complexes,” said a professor of nuclear energy who requested anonymity.

Questions regarding the feasibility of the energy project have also been raised.

“The electrical output produced by the energy complex will be little, at around 60 percent of a nuclear power plant,” said Kim Sam-hwa, a lawmaker for minor opposition Bareunmirae Party. “If it means building six-tenths of a nuclear power plant by spending 10 trillion won, wouldn’t it just be better to continue operating the Wolsong 1 plant?”

Wolsong 1 is a nuclear plant set to be decommissioned.

At the moment, renewable energy is less economical when compared with nuclear energy, explained Roh Dong-seok, a senior researcher at the Korea Energy Economics Institute. As the efficiency rate for solar power is about 15 percent, the actual production output of solar power plants is much lower than their rated capacity.

The government’s promise to return the plots of land to their original state after operating solar and wind power plants at the location for 20 years is in doubt as the energy produced will have to be replaced.

Local residents remain divided over the new project.

“Even if it’s a government project, I can’t accept something that is pushed without prior notice,” said Ko Yoon-seok, a local leader of a town adjacent to the tidal flat. “There isn’t enough information to determine whether it’s right or wrong, but it’s difficult to say that everyone is against it.”

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