Coal power is dirty but it gets us through the summer
Despite Korea’s carbon neutrality pledges, it's still highly dependent on coal-generated electricity, as the current heat wave shows.
According to the Korea Power Exchange, the nation operated coal power plants with a combined capacity of 30 gigawatts every day throughout July, or over 90 percent of the country’s total coal plant capacity of 35.3 gigawatts. That's up more than seven percentage points from last year.
On July 27 at 5 p.m., 57 out of the 58 coal power plants were operated as electricity demand soared to 91.4 gigawatts. The only one not operating was Samcheonpo unit 6, which is under maintenance. On that day, Seoul's temperature rose as high as 35.4 degrees Celsius (95.72 Fahrenheit) and saw the highest electricity demand since July 24, 2018, when electricity demand was 92.5 gigawatts.
When there is an increase in power demand, Korea generates more energy from nuclear and coal powered plants. Both are cheaper than other sources such as liquefied natural gas (LNG), and dependence on coal and nuclear energy rises in the summer.
The Shin Kori unit 4 nuclear reactor, which was closed for maintenance, resumed operation on July 21, a week earlier than planned. The Shin Wolsong unit 1 nuclear reactor also came back into operation earlier than planned on July 18, after going through maintenance.
Electricity usage is expected to rise this week. The summer vacation season is coming to an end, and more people will stay home and turn on individual cooling devices such as air conditioners.
The Hanwool unit 3 nuclear reactor is expected to help, as the plant will resume operation in August after a three month maintenance period.
“Not just coal plants, but all types of power plants need to be operated during peak times,” said a spokesperson for the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy. “Coal power plants are hard to switch on and off once in operation, thus needs to be turned on 24 hours a day to generate energy for the daytime.”
With high dependence on coal and nuclear power, the Presidential Committee on Carbon Neutrality’s proposals to cut carbon emissions have been getting some initial backlash.
The committee announced three proposals on Aug. 5, suggesting to operate only seven coal power plants or shutting down all 58 by 2050. It aims for nuclear power plants to make up 6.1 to 7.2 percent of Korea’s energy generation and drastically increase renewable energy to make up at least 56.6 percent or 70.8 percent at the most.
“During the heat wave, we were even planning to restart a nuclear power plant undergoing maintenance and checking to see if it’s possible to operate coal power plants that were shut down,” said an official working for a power generation company. “It’s not realistic to say we’re going to rely mostly on renewable energy by 2050, when electricity demand is expected to rise by two-and-a-half times today’s.”
Others say finding greener ways to operate coal plants could be a solution.
“The air quality was good even when coal power plants were almost operating at full capacity last month,” said another official. “When carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technology is fully developed, we’re not going to have a problem with using coal and nuclear power supplies.”
BY SOHN HAE-YONG [firstname.lastname@example.org]