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[#WeFACE] Floating solar farms show how green projects can thrive in South Korea

Govt. looks to install more solar panels by local dams to focus more on renewables

Dozens of solar panels are installed over a reservoir in Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province. (Ko Jun-tae/The Korea Herald)
Dozens of solar panels are installed over a reservoir in Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province. (Ko Jun-tae/The Korea Herald)
JECHEON, North Chungcheong Province -- Over 2.75 trillion liters of water behind the Chungju Dam in North Chungcheong Province, dozens of solar panels are laid out to generate power.

While it may seem odd to some as to why these solar panels are over water as opposed to other, more conventional places, the idea is one of many projects that South Korea is betting on to generate renewable electricity as it promised to the international community.

The country has announced plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 with increased emphasis on renewable energy sources and by shunning fossil fuel and nuclear power. One of the projects underneath the initiative include a greater use of solar panels, some of them being on water.

Solar panels over reservoirs show potential

Floating solar panels installed over 37,000 square meters of water installed over the reservoir in Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province, are capable of generating 4,031 megawatt-hours per year, according to the Korea Water Resources Development Corporation, also known as K-water.

These solar panels are installed over three separate areas within the reservoir, and 8.4 billion won was invested to complete them by December 2017. The project started with an agreement signed among the provincial government, Jecheon city government and K-water in 2016.

“Floating solar panels are easy to install with basic structural features, taking away the need to damage forests or kick off major construction projects,” said Oh Bong-keun, an official with the floating photovoltaic business team at K-water during a media tour of the facility on March 17.

“Solar panels can also generate more power over water, as their power generation efficiency falls under high temperature.”

The solar panels have also generated monetary profits, Oh said. According to K-water, the three clusters of solar panels by the Chungju Dam has yielded more than 600 million won per year since installation.

The panels have made money by selling the generated electricity to state-run Korea Electric Power Corp., with the exact amount of yearly income depending on the price of electricity in a given time period.

More floating solar panels to come

With the potential that these solar panels have shown in Jecheon, the Ministry of Environment and K-water are looking to wrap up 45.4 megawatts worth of solar panel projects next to three more dams and install five more solar panel clusters by 2023.

K-water officials explained that there were no environmental concerns about these projects, as the ones already installed are made with biodegradable materials and are made to cause no water pollution. They said nearby residents who were worried about pollution welcomed the projects for such reasons.

“All these buoys installed underneath the panels are environmentally safe, and I can assure you that they have never caused any pollution problems since being installed,” Oh said.

Four environmental analyses conducted from 2011 to 2019 by the Korea Environment Institute showed that the floating panels did not affect the quality of water and its ecosystem, K-water said. The materials used for the project strictly abided by safety standards for drinkable water, it added.

And for a floating solar panel project by the Hapcheon Dam in South Gyeongsang Province, K-water said it will draw investments from nearby residents with a promised return. The project was designed to motivate people to actively participate in eco-friendly energy projects.

The 83.5 billion-won project will generate 54,249 megawatt-hours per year over 468,000 square-meters of water. K-water is looking to collect 5 billion won from residents for a joint 20-year investment.

The water authority is planning to open a special purpose company to run the investment and provide a 4-10 percent return. The call for investors is expected to start in September, before construction starts in December.

“Floating solar panels have been safely constructed and managed with no environmental concerns through comprehensive reviews,” said Kim Dong-jin, director general of the water resource policy bureau at the Ministry of Environment.

“We plan to expand this project through more technological advances out of concern for environmental safety and regulatory improvements.”

Smart dam safety management

And on top of installing more water floating solar panels, South Korea has been heavily investing in advanced technologies to manage safety and extend the life expectancy of dams throughout the country, some of which are capable of generating electricity through hydropower.

From 2020 to 2025, the government has vowed to pour in 106.1 billion won to run drones, artificial intelligence, big data analysis and smart sensors to use less manpower and carry out preemptive maintenance efforts on 37 dams under the management of the Ministry of Environment.

Some of the initiatives were already pushed forward at the Chungju Dam when The Korea Herald visited the site on March 17. A system to automatically dispatch drones over the sky and underneath water to monitor water levels and find any damages to the structure is currently being developed.

By programming drones to travel in designated routes, dam officials said it can prevent human injuries and provide more accurate, image-based analyses. Smart sensing networks also allow real-time monitoring of dam and nearby facilities, while artificial intelligence provides predictive analytics in a timely manner.

The project is part of a vision that will see Korea’s dams run under a unified network to prevent natural disasters through efficient data transfer.

By Ko Jun-tae (