Coal, Dust and Hot Air: South Korea's Dirty Energy Habit

Coal, Dust and Hot Air: South Korea's Dirty Energy Habit

Ben Jackson
Ben Jackson

On the far side of a dry rice paddy, where magpies scratch at the earth, stands Dangjin Coal-Fired Power Complex, the biggest coal plant in the world. Inside its blue-clad towers are ten giant units capable of generating almost 5,900 megawatts of electricity — enough to power some five percent of South Korea’s electricity grid. A forest of pylons and cables stretches off to the east.

20 kilometers away, on Mar. 25, protesters gathered on the lawn outside Dangjin Culture & Art Center. Activists and politicians in turn took the stage to vent their frustration at South Korea’s continuing relationship with coal power.

“How did we end up with the world’s biggest coal-fired power station in Dangjin? It’s infuriating! We need to stop building these plants!” thundered Minjoo Party lawmaker Eoh Kiyku.

A string of other speakers voiced frustration at South Korea’s anachronistic coal addiction. Local mayor Kim Hong-jang slammed the country’s plan to build two more units at the Dangjin plant. Delegates from Samcheok demanded that plans for a new coal plant near their coastal city be scrapped. Later, some 1,000 protesters marched through the streets with banners, led by a band of drumming high school students. Many locals looked on in bemusement.

South Chungcheong Province, where Dangjin is, lies at the heart of South Korea’s coal power dispute. 26 of the country’s 53 coal power plant generating units are located in this region on the country’s central west coast, about 100 km southeast of Seoul.

Part of Dangjin Coal-Fired Power Complex, the largest coal plant in the world. (Ben Jackson/Korea Exposé)

“Every morning, our daughters have to put on masks,” said Bae Ik-hwan, a 39-year-old protester in Dangjin who marched on the streets with his wife and two young daughters. “When you look at the news and research, it seems like the power plants are the main problem.”

As of 2014, coal plants provided 39.1 percent of Korea’s electricity, contributing to the country’s worsening air pollution. Meanwhile, an OECD report published in 2016 claimed that air pollution may cause up to nine million deaths by 2060, with South Korea set to experience one of the highest mortality rates, not far behind India and China.

Yet government plans to reduce coal are problematically unambitious. According to a 2015 report by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, titled the Seventh Basic Electricity Supply Plan, the government aimed to reduce peak coal supply from 39.1 to just 31.8 percent by 2029.

More problematically, South Korea continues to build new coal plants, with 20 more to be completed by 2029. The government is closing ten older plants by 2025 in a bid to reduce emissions, but the new plants will still have far higher capacities than those closed.

“South Korea has the world’s highest concentration of coal plants,” said Dangjin protester Lee Haena, who goes to an alternative high school. “We have enough electricity already, so I think it’s problematic when they plan to build more coal plants.”

In the long run, the cost of coal does not compare well to renewable energy. “Power generation companies are only interested in the prime cost of coal,” says Gu Bon-hyeon, lawmaker Eoh’s aide at the National Assembly. “But when you consider the nitrides, sulfides and fine particle pollution caused by coal plants, the social costs [of coal plants] are high.”

“When I came to Seoul from the countryside, I noticed the bad air and the hazy sky,” said Lee. “My mom is quite sensitive about it: She can’t even open the windows at home.”  

18-year-old Lee Hae-na, marching against coal plants in Dangjin. (Ben Jackson/Korea Exposé)

One of the most critical, and potentially fatal, contributors to South Korea’s worsening air pollution is fine particulate matter, which tends to hit the country hardest in spring and has been particularly bad this year. 

Lim Young-wook, a professor at Yonsei University’s Institute for Environmental Research, said that breathing in fine particulate matter can be a major health hazard.

Tiny pollution particles in the air, especially those smaller than 0.3 microns in diameter, can lead to a variety of diseases. “These tiny particles enter the body very quickly,” he said. “[Breathing them] is linked to cardiovascular problems, diabetes, high blood pressure and other disorders. Macrophages in the blood, which are meant to eliminate foreign substances, become overwhelmed by the quantity of particles and swell up, increasing blood density.”

Many Koreans regard China as the primary source of their environmental woes, but the reality is that much of the fine particulate matter, or “fine dust” as it’s colloquially known, is generated at home, including by coal plants.

“There’s no accurate way of telling how much of the fine dust in Korea comes from China,” said Lim. “A figure between 30 and 50 percent keeps being repeated, but that’s just an estimate. The figures vary according to season, region, wind direction and other factors. On some days, it’s all from South Korea.”

The government is not completely turning a blind eye. MOTIE announced a plan last December to reduce air pollution from coal-powered electricity to half of 2015 levels by 203056 percent of the plan’s total investment of 11.6 trillion won (or 103.2 billion U.S dollars) is earmarked for South Chungcheong Province.

Lim argued that the government’s plan to reduce emissions from each coal plant was meaningless, because the sheer number of coal plants available would sustain the serious level of air pollution.

Many in South Korea are angry that the country continues to build coal plants, when places such as Europe and even China are turning away from the notoriously dirty fossil fuel and investing more actively in renewable energy. Coal is now widely regarded as a fuel on the way out — even the efforts of the Trump administration may ultimately be unable to revive the industry in the U.S.

In the long-run, coal and fossil fuels may not prove to be that cheap. South Korea is one of the top energy importers in the world; some 98 percent of its fossil fuel consumption is imported, including for electricity generation and petroleum-derived products for transportation.

So why is the country not embracing greener energy sources?

Only 3.9 percent of South Korea’s electricity was generated from renewable sources in 2014 (the most recently available statistic). The corresponding figure for the United Kingdom was 25 percent.

“The government always talks about increasing the share of renewables, but there’s a heavy emphasis on stability of supply,” says Gu. “So they don’t invest in renewable energy.” Renewable sources are considered less stable because of the intermittent availability and varying strength of wind and sunlight.

As with coal production, short-term cost appears to be the overriding factor in determining the feasibility of the energy source. For example, the country’s LNG (liquefied natural gas) plants, which are cleaner than coal plants but more expensive to operate, are being underused. The LNG plant ratio, for example, stood at only 40.3 percent in 2015 — meaning that nearly 60 percent of the potential capacity was left idle — while those of coal and nuclear clocked 90.1 and 85.3 percent, respectively

After Park Geun-hye’s ouster last month, eyes are turning to the presidential candidates. Their environmental manifestos have yet to be released. Some have mentioned air pollution, suggesting improved “environmental diplomacy” with China, better air quality measurement systems, reduced electricity consumption and a moratorium on projects to build new coal plants. But it remains to be seen  whether fundamental solutions will be offered, or merely ad hoc responses to whatever issues grab the public’s attention this spring.

Lawmaker Eoh expressed cautious optimism that his ongoing efforts to defeat coal power might now have a chance to bear fruit: “Maybe with a new government things will be better. With this one [under Park Geun-hye], it’s been like talking to brick wall,” he said. Throughout her presidency, Park has been consistently criticized by environmental activists for prioritizing economic development over environmental reform. 

Back in Dangjin, protester Bae Ik-hwan’s thoughts were on future generations.  “We’ve had a dramatic change this year with the president’s impeachment,” he says. “It’s a good opportunity for people to understand that we now have a greater future. My two daughters will live longer than me, so I hope they will see how change can affect their lives.”


Cover Image: Protesters unfurled a giant banner against coal plants at a Greenpeace march in Dangjin on Mar. 25. (Ben Jackson/Korea Exposé)

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