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[Herald Interview] 'Lifting regulations key to corporate push for RE100'

36 Korean members struggle to secure renewable energy sources due to tough rules, high costs

By Jo He-rim

Published : May 22, 2024 - 13:11

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Climate Group CEO Helen Clarkson talks with The Korea Herald at a Seoul hotel on Tuesday. (Yonhap) Climate Group CEO Helen Clarkson talks with The Korea Herald at a Seoul hotel on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

Regulations are holding back companies like Samsung Electronics in speeding up their renewable energy commitments, so the government should remove them and pursue grid transformation, the head of Climate Group said Tuesday.

Noting how Korea had a lot of regulatory limitations on implementing renewable energy plants, Helen Clarkson, the chief executive officer of the London-based entity, highlighted the role of the government and that its initial moves are the key for the country to "get on board" with the global movement for the climate.

“Korean companies that we talk and we engage with are very serious about their (RE100) commitment. They’re just running into this kind of barrier around how much is on the grid, and they are more limited in their choices at the moment than they might be in other geographies," Clarkson said.

She was visiting Seoul to take part in the Asia Renewables Growth Forum 2024 and promote the RE100 initiative.

As of this month, 36 Korean companies have joined the renewable energy advocacy group's RE100 initiative aimed at shifting to 100 percent renewable power to tackle climate change.

“Samsung Electronics (for instance) is going to be constrained by the reality of the Korean market. So I think Samsung is doing creatively what they can to get toward their goal."

The tech giant, joining the RE100 initiative in 2022, reported it achieved 31 percent of its electricity from renewable sources in the year, growing from 20 percent in 2019.

But Samsung's achievement is gained largely by purchasing renewable energy certificates and green premium tariffs, rather than the more direct methods of self-generation, power purchase agreements and equity investments.

“The grid starts to decarbonize. But there’s a reality for companies in Korea at the moment, where they’re saying, ‘look, until we get some movement in the system ...'" Clarkson said.

When the regime around energy shifts toward renewables, companies standing ready to go in will bring their goals forward. Climate Group comes in here to support the firms, taking their message to the government and regional governments for their engagement, the CEO added.

At the same time, Clarkson welcomed Korea's latest efforts for green energy use, the country's carbon-free energy initiative involving nuclear energy. On Monday, she met with Korea's Industry Minister Ahn Duk-geun to discuss how RE100 and CFE initiatives can go together.

Clarkson stressed that removing regulations and encouraging more investment would lower the cost burden of using renewable energy.

“Korea’s got a really high potential for offshore wind, quite similar to the United Kingdom which has done a lot in the sector. It is quite a similar geography in that sense,” Clarkson said. “But what’s been estimated is that Korea is using only 0.2 percent of its potential.”

According to the Global Wind Energy Council, South Korea has the technical potential of securing 624 Gigawatt for offshore wind capacity. Over 19 GW worth of Electricity Business Licenses have been granted but the current installed capacity is less than 150 Megawatt.

Another area is the solar energy sector. South Korea has fewer solar panels than the UK, where they have less sunlight. According to Clarkson, 129 out of the 226 districts have regulations about siting solar panels, and these regulations require the panels to be installed 100 or up to 1,000 meters away from residential settings or roads.

“If you look at solar in Europe, which has really taken off, it is really creatively using any surfaces you’ve got, putting rooftop solar panels over shopping centers and car parks,” Clarkson said.

So Korea should remove the regulations, and make sure the renewables have access to the grid and the short-term solar and wind energy would make a big difference for the longer-term pathways, the CEO said.

With regulations lifted, Korean companies would also be able to move their target years for RE100 achievement, from the current 2050 to earlier years, as other global companies do. In Korea, SKC and Amore Pacific moved their target year from 2050 to 2040.

On nuclear energy, which the Korean government is keen on, Climate Group is "flexible." Countries should utilize the source as much as possible if they can use them right away. If not, they should focus investment in renewable energy, which is quicker and cheaper, the CEO said.

“The thing with nuclear is, it takes a very long time to build it. It’s the most expensive form. We need to do renewables as fast as possible. We think that nuclear is part of the mix (for achieving the RE100 goal) in 2050, but we can’t just wait until 2045," Clarkson said.

Public acceptance is also one of the problems the Korean government should address to speed up the implementation of renewable energy. In Korea, building renewable energy plants such as offshore wind farms is difficult as the projects face strong opposition from the residents.

“Germany was very early on solar. They did a lot with feed-in tariffs, where you get paid for feeding the extra electricity you generate back to the grid," the CEO said.