December 16, 2008 – Volume 11, Issue 23
I N · T H I S · I S S U E


Just back from Seoul, Korea! My first trip to Korea; what a time it was. I travelled there with my childhood friend Young-il Choi, exploring means of taking the best "green" know-how from California and America, and sharing it with his country. It was an honor and pleasure to visit Korea and to meet his family and friends. We call the venture "EcoMotion Korea."

We'd been sponsored by The Hope Institute to advise its Climate Change Division on the country's sustainability and greenhouse gas reduction plans - specifically two advisory reports being prepared for two medium-size cities. I gave four lectures during the week, two in Seoul, one in Hwaseong City, the other in Ansan City. In addition to attending a half dozen briefings and meetings, we visited the world's largest tidal power plant and a biodiesel plant that refines Malaysian palm oil for Korean mobility.

Young-il insisted that I also see the sights, from the top of Seoul Tower to JUMP, a martial arts comedy where I was dragged on stage for some prime-time embarrassment, to a traditional concert with amazing percussion/drum and zither performances. We also hit an Asian Hockey League game (an ice-hockey league with teams from Korea, Japan and China). And, of course, we had a lot of great food: kimchi (a popular fermented dish made of vegetables and spicey seasonings); bulgogi (a charcoal-grilled meat dish); ghe-jahng (sweet, raw crab meet in chilli sauce); and much more.

Special Korea Issue
The Hermit Kingdom Awakes

Korea, called "the Hermit Kingdom" and "A Land of Morning Calm," is a trendsetter and its capital Seoul, particularly, exemplifies this highly dynamic, high tech, world economy. Korea joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1996. Now with 49 million people, Korea has the eleventh largest Gross Domestic Product in the world.

The Korean Peninsula is strategically important, jutting out into the Yellow Sea between China and Japan. In 1910, Korea was forcibly annexed and occupied by Japan until the end of World War II. It then became divided at the 38th parallel, with a socialist regime in the north and Western-style democracy in the south. The division was imposed upon Korean people against their wishes by the United States. Shortly after the end of World War II, the Korean War erupted, thoroughly destroying all infrastructure of the nation.

Seoul is less than 50 kilometers from the infamous DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone. The "military demarcation line" that divides the countries is bordered with two kilometers on each side creating a heavily fortified zone that now ironically is a notable wildlife preserve extending 248 kilometers across Korea.

When one sees the bright lights of Seoul - especially prepped for Christmas -- it's hard to imagine that Korea's per capita gross national product was similar to that of Ghana, Africa and India until mid-1960's. The country was ravaged; its natural resources pilfered by the Japanese. Sanitation was non-existent; some people resorted to eating bark. To their credit, within few decades the Koreans have built a sophisticated society from the ashes of the Korean War and horrific occupation by Japan. The country now is the global leader in, among others, telecommunications technologies, ship-building, semiconductors and bio-med technologies with companies and industries like LG, Samsung, Hyundai, STX and Daewoo providing products to consumers everywhere. Cha Biotech, where Young-il serves as lawyer, is a leader in stem-cell research. Downtown Seoul rivals Times Square and Piccadilly for bright lights.

The Seoul National Capitol Area has more than 23 million people. It's the second largest metro area in the world - only topped by Tokyo with 32 million, and followed closely by Mexico City and New York. It accounts for half of South Korea's population of 49 million. To my surprise, I learned that Korea is the only OECD country with negative population growth. (Its 2006 fertility rate was 1.08.) Its youth are flocking to Seoul and diving into their work to pay their rising living costs. In 1988, Seoul took the world stage with the 1988 Summer Olympics. In 2002, Seoul hosted the World Cup soccer tournament.

Seoul's Incheon International Airport has become one of the major hubs in Asia, rated among the world's best airports.

Sustaining its Environment

Koreans love to hike! The mountains in the northeast provide for this. I met people who clearly have an ethic about nature, revering the land and Korea's wonderful geography, and thus treading lightly and leaving no impact. Several told me that hiking and walking are their passions. Skiing and snowboarding are popular in winter. I was surprised to see a Burton snowboard shop, as well as a Coleman camping equipment store. (Costco moved in too; WalMart entered the market but went "belly-up!") Korea's southwestern coastline that I look forward to visiting is clearly stunning in beauty.

The Hangang River that bisects Seoul is a great environmental success story. When Young-il was a boy the river was polluted and off limits. Now you can swim in it; fishing and wind-surfing is routine. Effective policies were put in place. Now Seoul is in the process of converting its entire fleet of 7,000 diesel busses with compressed natural gas. Almost all the busses I saw were CNG. All taxis are run on LPG. Seoul also has one of the busiest subways in the world. Five-part source separation using certified biodegradable bags is legally required for household recycling.

Seoul is a member of the C40, the Large Cities Climate Leadership Group. Originally the C20 formed in London as the World Cities Leadership Climate Change Summit in 2005. The C40 has gained prominence through its Clinton Foundation affiliation in 2006. These cities house 50% of the world's population, use 75% of its energy, and emit 80% of its greenhouse gas emissions. Korea as a whole is the ninth largest greenhouse gas emitter worldwide.

The Hope Institute

Young-il's longstanding friend Won Soon Park founded The Hope Institute just three years ago, and already it has become one of Korea's foremost non-profits. It's a think tank established to research policy alternatives for various social agendae. It's an independent "civic research institute" intended to introduce innovative experiments and bold initiatives. It prides itself on blending ideological underpinnings with pragmatism.

Hope is Won Soon Park's current work. Imprisoned for his student activism in the 1970s, his life work has been entwined with his spiritual path. His last endeavor, The Beautiful Foundation, continues on its mission of rebuilding philanthropy by promoting a culture of giving. Hope, in turn, is intended to forge a blueprint for the future of an enlightened and sustainable Korean society.

By design, Hope is alternative. The staff all holds the same title of "social designer." Guitars stand at the ready like umbrellas on one floor. The Institute has a "social invention center," and a "roots center" which involves local law, rural hope, public finance, and peoples' participation clinics. Its "center for public culture" addresses issues from micro to macro, from better commercial signage to urban and world green space design. The Hope Academy has a civil servant school, plus local and overseas training for local government heads and civil servants.

An "info hub" provides wisdom by focusing on global brain technology. It includes a world city library, a knowledge management system, and an overseas network. Hope's "center for alternatives" manages the "happy senior project" which cares for elders, as well as "the housing institute," disaster management research, and the center for small enterprise. In each case, innovations are promoted - seeds are planted -- to create a more hopeful society,

Hope is bold and not afraid to advocate the need to change lifestyles and systems. Its "climate team" is working on full-scale utilization of technical and behavioral changes. My primary task for the trip was to deliver perspectives and lessons on sustainability lessons from leading American cities and European renewable energy policies.

A Time for Renewable Energy

One of Korea's profound challenges is its lack of "conventional" energy resources. The country has virtually no oil or natural gas or uranium, and very limited coal. It is almost entirely dependent on imported energy. Korea gets 50% of its primary energy from oil, 24% from coal, 14% from nuclear, and 12% from natural gas.

Korea - like California -- has about 60 GW of electric capacity. Its demand is rising at close to 4% annually. Dominant fuels include coal, nuclear, and natural gas. Its 20-reactor nuclear program has provided a modicum of energy independence, but being so close to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs left an indelible sentiment amongst Koreans that nuclear is a dangerous force of major proportion. Will Korea build more nuclear capacity? Advocates tout nuclear as carbon-free. Some leaders are promoting a new wave of reactors.

Of primary energy use, renewable energy had increased to just over 2% by 2005. Ninety percent of this was from waste energy plants. Solar accounted for just 4% of the share. But Korea has a plan and Korea is known to act fast. The government's Energy Vision 2030 calls for foreign oil's share of primary energy use to drop to 35% and renewable energy to climb to 9%. An intermediary goal is for Korea to get 5% from renewables by 2011.

During my stay in Seoul I visited a commercial attaché at the U.S. Embassy. What an unbecoming and heavily fortified building. My contact thankfully, was a fond of information and perspective. Solar? Yes! "Wherever oranges grow, solar is feasible," he stated with a grin. And oranges grow all over Korea. But where are the panels? I'd only seen a handful of solar thermal systems in the countryside, likely in areas without natural gas lines. Energy Vision 2030 calls for 100,000 solar homes by 2012.

The Solar Story

Solar capacity has been on the rise in Korea, mostly in centralized solar parks in the southeast. Korea is progressing quickly with both new fabrication plants and solar parks despite a reduction in feed-in tariff prices. But now a new certification requirement - a six month testing process -- is reportedly causing a standstill in Korea's solar action. Beginning January 1, 2009, all renewable energy systems will be required to be certified by the Korea Testing Lab.

In 2007, Korea had the highest solar incentives in the world, as much as $0.78/solar kWh. This rate was slightly above par with Italy and France, actually above Germany's hugely successful rates. Quickly, Korea has embraced solar power. At the time of this writing, and thanks to attractive solar feed-in tariff prices, the South Korean solar market is on the rise. The Ansan City Hall has a 436 kW PV system.

German-owned Solar World AG is building a 60 million euro integrated solar cell and solar module facility that is slated to come on line in early 2009. The plant will initially produce 60 MW of PV modules, then double to 120 MW annually. An American company called Spire is building a 30 MW turnkey solar module manufacturing plant for Hanwha Chemical Corporation, a Korean company making its initial foray into the solar world.

And then there are installations, big ones! Conergy built Asia's largest solar plant, a 19.6 MW system, in 2007. SolarWorld has partnered SolarPark Engineering Company LTD in Seoul to build a 15 MW solar plant in the southwestern province of Chollabuk-do. SunPower installed a 2 MW single-axis tracking plant on a landfill site in Jeonju, a city in the Jeolla Province. Low-cost financing was provided by the Korea Energy Management Company (KEMCO). EcoMotion learned of additional solar plants such as the 2.2 MW Mungyeong SP Solar Mountain, and the 1 MW plant in Gwangju. Korea installed 43.7 MW of solar in 2007.

Unique Tidal Power Conditions

Near the City of Ansan there is an 11 kilometer causeway into the sea that created Sihwa Lake. It was originally planned to be drained of seawater, filled with fresh water to support farming. But industries polluted the lake to the point that it became ecologically "dead." Plan B called for creating a tidal plant, in fact the world's largest capacity tidal plant. Currently under construction and slated to begin operations in 2009, the plant will take the mantle for the world's largest from Rance, France where a 240 MW station taps a 13.5 meter spring tide. The third and fourth largest tidal plants are in Annapolis, Canada (20 MW), and Jiangxia, China.

I had no idea that the Korean shore of the Yellow Sea has one of the world's greatest tides: At Sihwa Lake, the spring tide measures 9.16 meters, that's the difference between low tide and high tide. The tidal plant there is slated to come on line in 2009. Its "single-effect flood generation" system will allow water to flow into the lake at high tide, then the gates close and the sea drops. The resulting "head" will allow for 254 MW of power production through ten sluices that measure 15 * 12 meters. The plant's annual generation of 557 GWh will avoid 315,000 tons of CO2 emissions. Meanwhile the lake will be cleansed though the daily turnover of half of its entire volume, some 160 million square meters of water per tide.


Seoul is alive with energy! Despite one of the world's busiest subways with over 20 lines, its traffic arteries are clogged. Rush hours can double travel times. And I was struck by the size of cars -- bigger than I expected. Large cars, not unlike America, are really prestigious. One of the largest models is called "the Chairman;" another is called "Grandeur!" Korea is the land of Kia, Hyundai, and Daewoo. These brands dominate the paved landscape.

The Korean government has established a Renewable Energy Standard for biodiesel, increasing the "mixture" from its current 1% share of the diesel market to 7% by 2020. With presentations over, we spent our last business day travelling south again to visit Enertech's pioneering biodiesel facility in Pyeongtaek-si, a port city about an hour and a half south of Seoul. The plant is within 900 meters of a seaport; a pipeline connects it to the tanker terminal.

Enertech currently produces 80,000 kiloliters of biodiesel annually, about 25% of the Korean market. It primarily produces the biodiesel from palm oil from Malaysia - where it owns a 19,000 square kilometer plantation - but has also researched and verified its ability to process biodiesel from soybean oil, and used cooking oil. Company personnel are also working with rapeseed, olive oil, jatrophe, and even tallow, although the latter is not allowed.

Final Thoughts

Korea is a force of considerable proportion. Its people are so clearly able and hard working. Thus the country can mobilize to address any situation, in this case a shift to sustainability. Korea is rapidly getting its arms around the environment. Ironically, EcoMotion's grass-roots energy experiences - our first shifts toward energy democracy -- were most eagerly pursued as new opportunities for Korea.