Wind Energy and the Electricity Market in the Republic of Korea

The image above is Gyeongbokgung royal palace in northern Seoul. This ancient palace is not far from a 100 kW wind project at Nanjido, a former landfill turned sustainability-themed district. (Bowden, 2005)

Executive Summary

The Republic of Korea, known in the U.S. as South Korea, is no stranger to wind energy. With only 19 existing wind farm projects but another 29 in development, the nation is seeking to strengthen its renewable energy portfolio from its current meager 1.58% of all electrical generation. Beginning next year, a renewable portfolio standard will require 2% of all electricity generation to be from clean sources; the requirement will gradually ramp up to 10% of all electricity generation by 2022. A major contributor to this goal will be wind energy, currently providing only one-tenth of one percent of the nation’s electricity. A high population density makes onshore wind farms problematic, but a recent $8.2 billion investment in a 2,500 MW offshore wind farm demonstrates the government’s commitment to renewable energy.

The economy of the Republic of Korea was strong through the recent global economic crisis, and it was the first developed nation to officially recover. The government spends considerable amounts on research and development as well as infrastructure. Also, a substantial number of international companies are based in the nation such as Hyundai, LG, and Samsung, each with a portfolio that is related to renewable energy.

The electricity market in the nation is almost completely controlled by the government, with national electricity company KEPCO responsible for 87% of electricity generation and all electricity distribution. Efforts to privatize this market have met with public opposition and subsequently failed, but the generation portfolio was split into six companies who do compete with each other. The electricity market uses a cost-based pool system, where electricity producers submit their availability to produce energy via the Korea Power Exchange. Energy from producers whose marginal price for a given hour is lowest is purchased first, and this continues until the projected demand for that hour is met. Producers whose energy is not purchased still receive capacity payments for making that energy available.

While the Republic of Korea’s wind market is still young, there is considerable potential in the dedication of the government, the number of local companies with the resources to provide necessary products and services for the market’s development, and the availability of the wind resource. However, the current low price of electricity and the lack of available land on shore will prove challenging to wind development.


Figure 1: Map of the Republic of Korea. Note that the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan are labeled with the Republic of Korea’s preferred monikers, West Sea and East Sea, respectively. Image derived from content on Wikipedia and Google Maps.

The Republic of Korea (ROK) has a population of over 48 million in a land area slightly larger than Indiana, resulting in a population density of 1,263 people per square mile, more than twelve times the population density of the United States. (Savada & Shaw, 1990)  Since the unofficial end of the Korean War in 1953, the nation has gone from a poor country with a government-ruled economy overseen by a dictator to an open market economy with a democratic government very similar to that of the United States. (AlertNet, 2011)  Among its most recent accomplishments are a successful bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics, believed to indicate the rising importance of this nation. (Longman & Sang-hun, 2011)  Several global companies with a vested interest in renewable energy technologies are based in the ROK, including Daelim Industrial, Daewoo Shipbuilding and Engineering, Hyundai, LG, Samsung, and Unison.

Economics and the Energy Market

Figure 2: Incheon International Airport, near the capital of Seoul. A nearby wind farm has a capacity of 22 MW, with a 30 MW expansion in the works. (MKE, 2011) Image source: Wikimedia.

The economy of the ROK has been very strong in recent years.  During the recent global economic recession, their president urged companies to invest and plan a post-crisis strategy.  This, combined with increased government spending on research and development prevented the nation did from sinking as deeply into the recession as other nations, and it was the first wealthy nation to truly emerge from the crisis.  Even as recently as 2011, the ROK spends more on research and development as a percentage of gross domestic product by purchasing power parity (GDP PPP) than the United States. (Freedman & Lee, 2010) (Batelle, 2010)  The nation’s economy grew by 6.2% in 2010; combined with a $1 trillion GDP and a gross national income (GNI) per capita of $19,890, the nation has a growing and healthy economy with no national debt to speak of. (World Bank, 2011) (Dow Jones Newswires, 2011)  Recent infrastructure investments include smart grid investments (to be discussed later in the report) and the highest broadband internet penetration of any nation in the world. (Kelly, Gray, & Minges, 2003)

Figure 3: Electricity generation, Republic of Korea, 2000-2009. (APC, 2011)

The electricity generation mix is not entirely unlike that of the United States, with most of the energy coming from fossil fuels and a small portion coming from renewables; the exception is the large percentage of nuclear energy.  The majority of the nation’s energy comes from coal, with 192 TWh coming from this source.  Following this source is nuclear, with 151 TWh, natural gas with 81 TWh, and oil with 15 TWh; all renewable sources account for less than 2% of the total national energy consumption as of 2008.  (Hwang & Lee, 2010) (IEA, 2008)  The nation is a net importer of crude oil, natural gas, and coal, but ranks fourth in world for percentage of energy production by nuclear after Sweden (42.6%), Ukraine (46.7%), and France (77.1%). (IEA, 2010)

Electrical generation sources in the ROK, 2008
Description: Electrical generation sources in the ROK.Tags: Author: Steve Richeycharts powered by iCharts

Figure 4: Electrical generation sources in the ROK, 2008. Chart made using data from IEA.

The electricity market was formally created with the 1898 formation of Hansung Electric Company, the first electric power company in Korea.  In 1961, Korea Electric Company (KECO) was formed from three regional electric companies.  Eleven years later, KECO became KEPCO, a wholly government-owned entity.  Over time, KEPCO shares have been released on the Korea and New York stock exchanges, and in 2001 the power generation portion of the business was separated into multiple subsidiaries. (KEPCO, 2010)  This change was met with resistance by KEPCO employees, and a strike was narrowly averted. (Kirk, 2002) (Len, 1999) Efforts to privatize the electricity market have largely failed.  KEPCO has an installed capacity of nearly 66 GW, and produces 87% of the electricity in the ROK. (Yahoo Finance, 2011)  KEPCO is the only electricity retailer in the nation, and purchases all electricity produced with the exception of some large industrial users. (APC, 2011) Essentially, the supply side of the electricity market is competitive, and the demand side is a monopoly. (Baker & McKenzie, 2010) The grid itself is national, with no regional trading markets, only one national market. (Kim & Kim, 2008) Financial details on the electricity market were provided by an Australian study:

“The majority of power produced in South Korea must be dispatched through a mandatory pool, which is operated by the Korea Power Exchange. This pool is a ‘cost-based pool’ system — unlike standard electricity pools, generators do not submit bids. Rather, they submit their availability for a time period, with the merit order (and thus the system marginal price) based on an assessment of each generator’s marginal cost.

“In general, aside from renewable generation, generators do not receive the system marginal price. Rather, the price they receive is based on estimates of their marginal cost, plus an adjustment that takes into account the difference between their marginal cost and the marginal price.

“The South Korean market also features capacity payments — generators are paid for capacity they make available during a period, regardless of whether the capacity is required in that period or not. In 2009, the capacity payment averaged KRW 7.71/kWh, and approximately 14.8 per cent of payments to generators was in the form of the capacity payment.” (APC, 2011)

KEPCO has recently made efforts to expand into energy markets abroad, including a plan to build nuclear reactors in Abu Dhabi and hydroelectric and wind energy projects in Pakistan. (Stanton, 2009) (Dawn, 2011) Recent domestic concerns at KEPCO include an energy tariff that is too low, causing the company to lose money and accumulate debt. (Choonsik, 2011)

The nation has pushed for increased nuclear power potential, with the ultimate goal of reducing the imports of fossil fuels.  This has raised some concerns, as public opposition to nuclear waste storage facilities necessitates the development of fuel reprocessing centers.  International agreements prevent this, even as the Republic of Korea seeks to export more nuclear reactors to gain a larger share of the international reactor market. (Weitz, 2010) This has led to some concern in the United States. (Horner, 2009)

The concept of a ‘smart grid’ has gained significant traction in the nation, with a massive $220 million “Smart Grid Test Bed” being developed largely on the island of Jeju.  The 2,000 households participating in this pilot program get smart meter technology, a “gateway” where they can control house appliances, and real-time electricity pricing information.  Furthermore, about 150 select houses received solar panels and batteries, and 31 homes received electric cars.  The cost of solar panels and batteries are split between the government and corporations such as SK Telecom.  The government has shown considerable dedication to investment in this technology with a requirement that 2% of GDP be spent on renewable energy research and development. (McDonald, 2011)  Smart grid technology developed in the ROK will be implemented in U.S. cities such as Chicago, where large buildings in the downtown area will be outfitted with energy-saving gadgets developed by Korean companies KT and LG Electronics. (MKE, 2010)

The nation is moving from a former feed-in tariff scheme to a renewable portfolio standard (RPS).  This law will go into effect in 2012, requiring 4% clean energy by 2015 and 10% by 2022. (Fuel Cell Today, 2010)  Those who generate renewable energy will receive one renewable energy certificate (REC) per kWh to compensate for the higher cost of renewable energy, with each REC estimated to be valued at 3.5 cents.  The 13 largest generators will be required to meet the clean energy targets specified above, starting at 2% in 2012.  Other initiatives in the ROK’s government include the simplification of permitting, providing tax exemptions, and easing access to the grid for renewable energy generation. (GWEC, 2010)

Figure 5: KEMCO’s mascot.

A significant company involved in new energy issues such as wind energy is the Korea Energy Management Corporation (KEMCO), which specializes in renewable energy, climate change, and energy efficiency.  Among other tasks, this company provides energy-saving building design certification, greenhouse gas research, rating systems for vehicle fuel efficiency, emissions trading, inspection of boilers and furnaces, energy audits , and energy efficiency labeling for appliances. (KEMCO, 2009) One major KEMCO project was to act as an energy consultant for Incheon International Airport, providing energy efficiency and greenhouse gas inventory services. (Seo, 2009) KEMCO is described by one study as “a public agency of Korea”. (Baker & McKenzie, 2010)

Terrain and the Wind Resource

The ROK is hilly and mountainous, with wide coastal plains in the west and south.  (CIA, 2011)

Figure 6: Terrain map of the Korean peninsula. Image source: Wikimedia.

As a result of the terrain, the majority of the wind resource is either offshore or in the mountainous eastern region.

Figure 7: Wind map of the southern Korean peninsula. Wind data based on historical upper level weather data and mesoscale atmospheric modeling, validated with met data. Image derived from content from Google Maps and KWEIA.

The Republic of Korea does not appear to have any high-definition wind resource maps available.  The above wind map was developed using data provided by the Korean Wind Energy Industry Association.  An interactive wind resource map is available via 3Tier; the data provided on that website does appear to be less specific than the above map.

Wind Farms, Existing and Planned

From what data was available on wind farms in the ROK, there are 19 existing wind farms totaling approximately 278 MW of capacity and the nation generated 436 GWh of energy from wind in 2008. (NREL, 2010) (IEA, 2008)

Figure 8: Map of installed wind projects in the ROK. (NREL, 2010)

Given the dense population and scarcity of available land, wind farms are often met with opposition by citizens.  China exemplified a solution to this problem with a $40 million offshore wind project installed in late 2007. (Block, 2008) (Xinhua, 2007)  The ROK’s government recently committed to this prospect in the form of $8.2 billion in investments in offshore wind power projects by 2019.  The main thrust of this investment will be a massive wind farm on the nation’s west coast, utilizing 3 MW turbines to build a 100 MW farm by 2013 and construct a 2500 MW farm over the following six years. (Kang, 2010)  South Korea has a late start in wind power investments compared to other nations in the area such as China, with 42 GW of onshore and offshore wind combined, compared to the ROK’s 278 MW. (OffshoreWind, 2011)  It is worth noting that despite the high number of tsunamis in the area, offshore wind farms are believed to be safe and were unaffected by the recent tsunami near Japan. (Offshore Wind Wire, 2011)

The ROK has a large number of wind farms currently planned or in development; the map below does not include the planned 2,500 MW offshore wind farm.

Figure 9: Proposed wind projects. (NREL, 2010)


The wind energy industry in the nation is still in its infancy, but the infrastructure is in place for a wind “boom” to occur, especially in offshore wind.  The substantial dependence on foreign fossil fuels is a source of concern in the nation, leading some to look for alternative sources.  The combination of a lack of mineral wealth in the nation and continued pressures to limit the refining of nuclear fuel make renewable energy an attractive proposition. (The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 2007)  The government’s considerable investments in clean energy, passage of a RPS into law, and significant investments in research and development showcase a nation-wide dedication to renewable energy.  The economy of the ROK has remained strong even in the face of a global recession, and there are a large number of companies in this nation with investments and products in the renewable energy field.  While some issues such as a low price of electricity and the lack of available land limit the market penetration of wind energy, there is considerable potential if the government continues to make wise decisions on this matter.

Recommended for Further Reading

The following items, also found in the bibliography, are recommended for further information on this topic.

Productivity Commission of the Australian Government: Emission Reduction Policies and Carbon Prices in Key Economies, Appendix I: South Korea’s Electricity Generation Sector

This report, commissioned by the Australian government, sought to examine and detail key emissions reduction policies either in place or committed in Australia and other key economies. The appendix entry on the ROK provides detailed information on the electricity market there.

Clean and Renewable Energy Market Opportunities in Korea and Australia – Overview of Regulation, Policy and Investment Opportunities

This is another report for the Australian government, this time focusing on clean energy initiatives in the ROK.  Of note is the executive summary, but the entire report is very thorough.

International Directory of Company Histories: Korea Electric Power Corporation

This is a thorough history of electricity in Korea, including the story of the first generator in the nation, written by The Gale Group, Inc.  Hosted by; scroll down to see the history.

The Electricity Industry Reform in Korea: Lessons for Further Liberalization

While this paper focuses on the effects of privatization on the electricity market in the ROK, it provides significant background on the electricity industry and the Cost-Based Pool model used in the market.

Korea Electric Power Corporation: Annual Report Pursuant to Section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, Form 20-F

This copy of KEPCO’s 2009 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission contains a great wealth of information regarding their business practices, subsidiaries, finances, the cost-based pool system, and so on. This document was used as a source to describe the cost-based pool system in the executive summary.

South Korea Power Sector

Market Size Report of Electricity in South Korea 2011

These two reports, by Taiyou Research and Mintel Group, respectively, promise incredibly detailed information on the electricity market of the ROK.  However, they are both paid reports, and cost approximately $404 and $492, respectively.

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(Header image credit: CIA World Factbook.)

This report was originally submitted for the Center for Renewable Energy at Illinois State University and appears here with their permission.

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