South Korea looks to Denmark as wind power partner

Being seen and being active are what Rep. Yangyi Won-young of the Democratic Party, newly elected this year, has been doing for the past 25 years as an environmental activist.

“Three months ago this time, I received a phone call. The situation on the ground didn’t look good. A civic movement we had helped build in Yeongdeok County [in North Gyeongsang] against nuclear energy was being pulled apart,” begins Yangyi’s post on her Facebook account on Dec. 2, 2015. “My husband was just learning the ropes in his new position at work and our 4-year-old daughter needed all the attention we could give her. But I had no choice but to travel again. Activism is not something you can win with empty words.”

Her days and nights spent with locals and other activists, in their makeshift demonstration tents or rallying on the streets with placards, are recorded in such posts and photos on her social media accounts. And those days are not behind her.  

Yangyi, one of the drafters of President Moon Jae-in’s energy transition plan, is gathering forces again. This time, the backdrop is the National Assembly.  

“We have Assembly members interested in looking into possible offshore wind energy development in their regions, including Rep. Kim Won-i of Mokpo, Rep. Seo Sam-seok of Sinan County, and Rep. Lee Kai-ho of Yeonggwang County, all in South Jeolla,” Yangyi said. “We’re getting to work on the ground to see how much support there is from the people.”

Yangyi Won-young, fourth from left, at Buan County, North Jeolla, on July 17, shortly after the president’s announcement on expanding Korea’s wind power. [YANGYI WON-YOUNG]

Yangyi Won-young, fourth from left, at Buan County, North Jeolla, on July 17, shortly after the president’s announcement on expanding Korea’s wind power. [YANGYI WON-YOUNG]
Not long after his announcement of the so-called Green New Deal — a 73.4 trillion won ($62 billion) investment in the green energy sector, including renewable power sources and smart grids to increase energy efficiency — President Moon visited a wind energy farm in Buan County, North Jeolla, and pledged to make Korea a top-five wind power nation by 2030.  

This pledge is where Denmark enters the picture, as it is currently the world’s No. 1 wind power nation. Yangyi visited the Scandinavian country in 2019 to examine some of its wind power plants in person.

“Denmark did not turn into a wind power nation overnight,” said Danish Ambassador to Korea Einar Hebogard Jensen. “We were once heavily reliant on fossil fuels. […] In 1995, only 5 percent of our electricity production came from renewables. Today, it is 70 percent, with almost half of it coming from wind.  

“Denmark is a living example that, over time, energy transition can happen and that it can be an engine for economic growth,” he said. “We have embarked on the road to close our last coal-fired power plant by 2028, that would mean that 100 percent of our energy being used is generated by renewable energy sources.”

Meeting at the Danish diplomatic residence in central Seoul on July 28, Yangyi and Jensen talked about Denmark’s energy transition experience, its roadblocks and breakthroughs, and what Korea can do over the next few years to get citizens and lawmakers involved in Korea’s energy transition. The following are edited excerpts of the interview.  

?? :How do you assess Korea’s so-called Green New Deal?
?? :Yangyi Won-young: I am not the first person to say it, but the deal does not address an exact timeline of Korea’s goal to reach net zero on greenhouse gas emissions. I also think the size of the deal could have been bigger. But it was a step in the right direction in that the president is now involved with the initiative: He will be presiding over a meeting regularly to decide the scale and direction of projects that fall under the so-called Green New Deal. 

?? :Einar Hebogard Jensen: It’s been a very positive experience seeing Korea step forward with the new green deal. I saw that about 27 percent of the deal is related to green activities, it’s actually very similar [when speaking about proportions] to the European Union’s [Covid-19 recovery] deal, where some 30 percent of the 750 billion euros [$883.7 billion] is committed to going green.  
As Yangyi said, I think what’s more important here is the president’s commitment. During his visit to a wind farm in North Jeolla last month, the president spoke about raising the country’s wind power generation to 12 gigawatts by 2030. You have plans to become No. 5 in the world in terms of your offshore wind power. I say that’s possible — the government needs to lead the way.    

?? :The DP’s plan is to have Korea reach net zero in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. What are some areas in need of immediate action by the Korean government to reach this goal?
?? :Yangyi: There are three areas that Korea can tackle to reduce emissions, the first being electricity generation, the second transportation and the third industrial processing. Among these, the easiest to tackle is the first area, because there you are dealing with some 60 coal power plants — small compared to 200 million vehicles if you are trying to address the second.  
In order to reach net zero by 2050, our calculations in the DP say that we have to increase energy generated by renewables by 14 gigawatts every year.
In order to reach net zero by 2050, a calculation by Seoul National University Graduate School of Environmental Studies says that we have to increase energy generated by renewables by 14 gigawatts every year. It’s my goal to start within this year, with the addition of 2 gigawatts of wind power and at least 5 gigawatts of solar power. We have to work on improving our wind energy capacity, because a lot of Korea’s renewable energy generation is focused on solar power at the moment. [The most recent figures from the Korean government show that in 2019 solar panels with the ability to generate 3.1 gigawatts of electricity were installed, in comparison to the installation of wind power plants with the ability to generate just 191 megawatts of electricity. Renewable energy generation makes up only 4.5 percent of total energy generation in Korea.]  

A wind farm at Rodby Fjord, Denmark. Photo provided at the courtesy of Vestas Wind Systems. [VESTAS WIND SYSTEMS]

A wind farm at Rodby Fjord, Denmark. Photo provided at the courtesy of Vestas Wind Systems. [VESTAS WIND SYSTEMS] ?? :Denmark is the world’s No. 1 when it comes to its wind power proportion in its energy generation. But it was once a heavily fossil fuel-powered nation until the Danish parliament made the decision to turn to wind power in 1985. How was that transition brought about?
?? :Jensen: Denmark really was hurt in the ‘70s when we had the oil crisis — we relied some 90 percent on fossil fuels, so when the prices went up, we were in deep trouble. Some people opted for developing nuclear power, but it was never realized since by the 1980s the majority of the people did not want it. We had mass protests then, with people on the streets holding signs that read, “Nuclear Power No Thanks.” The parliament rejected the possibility of nuclear energy development entirely and we instead turned to renewable energy. In 1995, only 5 percent of our electricity generation was from renewables. In 2005, we brought it up to 25 percent. Today, it is 70 percent — almost half of it is wind, and the rest is made up of solar power, biomass and biogas and other forms of renewables.    

?? :In Denmark’s case, there were society-wide movements to reject or accept different policies on renewables. Do you think there is comparable public awareness on energy policies in Korea?
?? :Yangyi: I think you have to approach it differently in Korea to put the emphasis on economic opportunities that come from energy transition. Which is not a completely bad thing. There is definitely a more widespread consensus and readiness in the public to accept the fact that energy transition will lead to new business opportunities for Korea and Koreans and that it will help alleviate the inequality in growth and development across regions in Korea.    
?? :Jensen: I fully agree with Yangyi on the point of economic opportunities. There was a recent study in Denmark that said every time you install 1 gigawatt of wind [power], it will lead to the addition of 14,600 full time equivalent jobs throughout the value chain. And some people will ask, what will happen to people whose job was in the energy sector that is being phased out? There is a town in Denmark called Esbjerg that was at the center of the energy transition. It used to be a fishing town when I was a boy. Then it became an oil and gas town in the 1990s when the country was into developing the oil and gas resources in the North Sea. In the last 20 years, it became a hub for shipping out wind turbines, with 20 percent of all employees in the town in the renewable energy sector.    
?? :Yangyi: I think some regions in Korea are starting to see these possibilities, and some mountainous regions in the east have gotten in touch with the government to address their concerns, saying that their geographical topography does not allow them to install solar panels or wind farms. They don’t want to be left behind in the energy transition.

Yangyi at Denmark’s zero-carbon island, Samso Island, in 2019. [YANGYI WON-YOUNG]

Yangyi at Denmark’s zero-carbon island, Samso Island, in 2019. [YANGYI WON-YOUNG]

?? :The opposition United Future Party (UFP) has its own plans on reducing carbon emissions, which include expanding nuclear power plants, a source of debate in Korean politics. What are the roadblocks you foresee on passing legislation on increasing renewable energy sources?
?? :Yangyi: The DP and UFP don’t see eye to eye on nuclear energy policies. The UFP thinks nuclear power plants are the way for Korea to reduce emissions. But we have stats that say otherwise, that they don’t lead to immediate and drastic reduction in emissions, which is what Korea needs. But I think there is room for bipartisan cooperation if we focus on expanding renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.  

?? :Rep. Yangyi, you submitted in July your first bill since election, which was about requiring the government to calculate expected levels of carbon emissions reduction per budget allocation. What other bills are being prepared now at the Assembly to assist Korea in expanding its renewables reliance?
?? :Yangyi: We have some 40 bills being prepared at the Assembly, which including banning Korea’s investment in coal power plants abroad, reducing taxes for projects run on renewables and making it mandatory for national environmental tests to calculate the subject’s input on carbon emission reduction. I am at the moment preparing a bill that provides a social safety net for stakeholders of coal-fired power plants and nuclear power plants that are shut down.  

?? :For future Danish-Korean cooperation on wind energy, what are some of Denmark’s best practices that you wish to share?
?? :Jensen: One wind power policy of Denmark worth mentioning in particular is that we have what’s called a one-stop-shop process, where we’ve put the Danish Energy Agency in charge of planning, finding sites and moving ahead with regulatory measures. Because to place the power plants at sea, you need several maps: a map showing where the oil fields are, another map showing where the shipping routes are, another map showing where the Defense Ministry says is a no-go, another map showing key fishery resources. One governing entity would collect these maps from several ministries and put them on top of each other to find the feasible area for a new wind farm. This way you are minimizing the risk, uncertainty, time and cost for developers.  
Denmark and Korea have been cooperating on the green growth alliance for 10 years and the Danish Energy Agency and the Korean Energy Agency are strong collaborators. It will be interesting to see how we continue to cooperate for a win-win solution on both sides.

Denmark and Korea established diplomatic ties in 1959, entering into a strategic partnership in 2011. The two nations have since partnered on several initiatives on green growth, such as the Green Growth Alliance, an annual Denmark-Korea forum on green transition, and Partnering for Green Growth and Global Goals (P4G), a multilateral forum to promote public and private partnership on sustainable development goals.