A complex equation

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A complex equation

Lee Hyung-sang
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo. 
Germany has lost face amid the Ukraine crisis. After the mighty country in Europe took an obscure position between NATO and Russia, the German people are wondering where Chancellor Olaf Scholz is in such a volatile situation. Ukrainians went so far as to bring back the past. They held Germany accountable for the deaths of 8 million Ukrainians from the Nazi occupation during World War II.

After Germany hurriedly promised to provide Ukraine with 5,000 combat helmets, Ukrainians ridiculed it saying, “Are you going to give us pillows next time?” The image of a powerful EU member nation once pressuring its southern European counterparts to tackle their fiscal crisis with stringent measures has disappeared all of a sudden. What has happened?

The reason is simple. It’s because of energy. As Germany relies on Russia for more than half of its natural gas, Berlin cannot but read Moscow’s reaction carefully. If Vladimir Putin happens to put his hand on Nord Stream — a natural gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany through the Baltic Sea — Germany gets nervous immediately. Germany built Nord Stream 2 to help extend its energy lifeline, but the United States put the brakes on it.

Behind the embarrassing situation for Germany is the renewable energy dilemma. With Berlin phasing out nuclear reactors and coal-powered plants, Germany now relies on renewable energy for a whopping 45 percent of its total electricity demand, a more than sevenfold increase over the past two decades. But Germany’s dependence on Russia for natural gas grew further. Russia can weaponize energy at any time. If things go wrong, it unilaterally informs importers about a gas price hike and shuts off the gas valve if they disagree to the price increase. Last year, Russia triggered a dramatic surge in gas prices in Europe by closing the valve on the 4,107-kilometer (2,552-mile) Yamal-Europe gas pipeline. The United States has since boosted its natural gas exports to Europe, but stops way short of meeting the demand.

The Moon Jae-in administration announced a bold plan to lift the share of electricity generation through renewable energy sources up to 70 percent by 2050. But the biggest weakness of renewables is their extreme vulnerability to weather conditions. If the weather is bad — or if electricity demand soars suddenly — the country must make up for the shortage with electricity generation by coal or gas. As the government vowed to reduce the use of coal, it must rely on gas more than at any time in the past.

The government also promised to use hydrogen more, but it must be imported. That only raises Korea’s dependence on energy from overseas. The government hopes to establish a Northeast Asia energy grid linking China and Russia over the long haul. The time has come for the government to think about the grim possibility of Korea’s energy being held hostage by them.

In the first TV debate among presidential candidates on February 4, ruling Democratic Party (DP) candidate Lee Jae-myung’s abrupt mentioning of “RE100” helped make the term familiar among the public. But no candidate gave substantial answers to achieving the ambitious goal of using renewable energies for 100 percent of all electricity demand by companies by 2050.

Blind faith in “RE100” in the tumultuous energy transition is not good. Most of the 349 companies participating in the audacious campaign are based in Europe and the United States and over 80 percent of them are in the non-manufacturing sector.

Some pundits criticize the campaign led by advanced Western companies for trying to “kicking away the ladder” after they left the manufacturing businesses. Campaigning is just campaigning. Achieving RE100 is technically impossible. Even Google, which needs a stable supply of energy 24/7 to operate huge data centers around the globe, has toned down its energy goal to “CF100,” referring to “carbon free.”

RE100 could serve as a new type of trade barrier under the banner of promoting eco-friendly businesses. Yet Korea cannot simply dismiss it due to its high dependence on trade. Given all variables to be factored in, RE100 is a very complex equation to solve.

But clearly, Korea is not a favorable environment for renewable energy given its small geographical areas and it relatively weak winds and sunlight. Its geopolitical risks and energy security also should be taken into account to solve the conundrum.
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