Koreans confront their oil addiction
A South Korean effort mirrors Hawaii's goals for power generation from alternate sources
DAEJEON, South Korea » On the grounds of a government-subsidized research complex about 50 miles south of Seoul sits a structure that could hold the key for the energy security of South Korea and other economies like it.
The two buildings -- a house and a four-story apartment-office structure -- would be fairly unremarkable but for the photovoltaic solar cells stretched across their roofs and facades and the adjoining wind-powered turbine rising majestically between them.
Unseen is a tunnel dug deep into the Earth beneath the house that taps geothermal heat to keep the structure warm in winter.
The use of renewable energies such as solar, wind and geothermal heat isn't confined indoors, either. In the driveway sits a hydrogen fuel-cell golf cart that shuttles visitors to the front door.
It's called "Zero Energy Town," and if it sounds more like an exhibit at Epcot Center than an incorporated municipality, that's because it's not a town at all, but a concept.
It may not be pretty, but in a country that relies on imports for 90 percent of its energy needs, there is hope that the concept behind Zero Energy Town could someday become a model for the nation's energy policy.
"We're testing the idea of having zero energy coming from the outside," says Choi Ik-Soo, president of the Korea Institute of Energy Research, where the project resides. "We want the building to be self-sufficient in terms of energy, using 100 percent new and renewable energy based on wind power, solar energy and fuel cells."
Like most other nations, South Korea is confronting its energy future head on, adopting a strategy that aims to make greater use of renewables while lessening its dependence on fossil fuels such as oil and coal.
If that sounds familiar, it should.
It's the same premise behind a package of energy initiatives passed by the Legislature this year and signed into law by the Lingle administration.
With a unique, island economy isolated from the rest of the country, Hawaii hopes to become a renewable-energy model for the United States.
"Definitely, we should become the premier demonstration site for pilot projects and deployment," said House Energy Chairwoman Hermina Morita (D, Hanalei-Kapaa). "We're really a microcosm. If we can't do it here, it would be harder every place else."
Toward that end, a priority was placed this year on developing a strategy for weaning the islands from imported oil.
The strategy includes promoting energy efficiency and savings through conservation and developing alternative energy sources -- solar, wind, wave and geothermal -- that are more abundant in Hawaii than perhaps anywhere else in the country.
"It will have us become more energy independent and, most especially, environmentally compatible by utilizing renewables in abundance in Hawaii," said Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings. "This state can make a quantum leap and be the first state to really wean ourselves from dependence on fossil fuels."
Like South Korea, Hawaii depends on imports for about 90 percent of its energy needs, but the state passed a comprehensive package of initiatives aimed at addressing its energy future only this year.
Korea has enacted similar policies in the past several years, and made some considerable strides.
At the Korean Institute for Energy Research, a public-private entity that receives about 80 percent of its funding from the government, practical applications of renewable energy technologies are tested before being put to use commercially.
In addition to hydrogen fuel-cell golf carts, staff members are shuttled around the sprawling campus in buses fueled by biodiesel, Choi said. Similar buses are being used in some outlying provinces, where oil resources are scarce and more expensive to ship in.
Wide-scale tests of fuel-cell buses are scheduled to begin in October.
Some alternative energy technology, such as solar water heating, was used in facilities built for the World Cup soccer tournament that was held throughout Korea and Japan in 2002.
Many of the technologies for using renewable energy sources can be seen at the Zero Energy Town project.
The two structures generate power from wind, solar and geothermal sources, storing it in fuel cells that provide electricity to the complex.
On good days, the system operates at a surplus, allowing it to feed energy to the grid. At times when the wind isn't as strong or the clouds too thick, the system operates at a deficit and, like any other building, takes power from the traditional source.
Officials say the goal is to have a net result of zero -- where over time the amount of energy fed to the grid equals the amount taken.
Developing technology to promote renewables will be key as countries like Korea, and even U.S. states, including Hawaii, push to meet government-mandated Renewable Portfolio Standards -- benchmarks for when a certain amount of power will have to be generated from alternative sources.
By 2011, the Korean government hopes to have 5 percent of its energy needs met by renewables, with a goal of 15 percent by 2030. In 2005, the rate was about 2.2 percent, while this year is expected to be about 2.6 percent.
Hawaii standards are more ambitious, shooting for 10 percent by 2010, 15 percent by 2015 and 20 percent by 2020. Experts say Hawaii is lagging behind, coming in at only 5 percent now with expectations of just 6 percent by 2012.
The biggest problem in reaching such goals is consumption -- the technology cannot keep up with the rising demand for energy.
"You cannot stop people from using energy," Choi said. "Promoting conservation is very important."
In this area, Hawaii hopes to lead by example -- the energy package adopted by the Legislature and Lingle takes a top-down approach to promoting efficiency and conservation.
Key initiatives include the adoption of energy efficiency standards in future construction of state buildings, requirements for the purchase of alternative fuel vehicles for state auto fleets and a requirement that counties develop policies to streamline the permit process for projects that incorporate energy efficiency standards.
The Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism on Thursday plans to hold its first of four public meetings to discuss the state's energy strategy.
"It's not going to be any one replacement for oil as our fuel," Lingle said recently. "It's going to be biofuels, it's going to be wind, hydro, hydrogen -- all these technologies are going to have to come into play in order for us to be successful."
Hawaii's energy goals
A look at some of the energy initiatives passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Linda Lingle:
» Adding energy efficiency standards for construction of new state buildings and promoting the installation of renewable energy devices such as solar water heaters and Energy Star appliances.
» Promoting the purchase of alternative-fuel vehicles in state fleets.
» Requiring counties to develop policies for priority processing of permit applications for construction projects that incorporate energy efficiency and environmental design standards.
» Appropriating $5 million to develop a photovoltaic (solar power) net energy metered pilot program in public schools.
» Authorizing the Public Utilities Commission to determine whether the existing Energy Cost Adjustment Clause fairly allocates the risk of fuel-cost changes between the public utility and its customers. Currently, utilities can pass along higher fuel costs to consumers.
» Strengthening the Renewable Portfolio Standards law by eliminating guaranteed utility profit language and authorizing penalties for failure to meet the standards. The standards are set at 10 percent renewable energy by 2010, 15 percent by 2015 and 20 percent by 2020.
» Increasing tax credits for renewable energy technologies for certain solar-thermal, wind-powered and photovoltaic energy systems.
» Establishing a pilot project that would provide financing to make purchases of residential solar water heater systems more affordable.
» Establishing state support for achieving a new statewide alternate fuel standard of 10 percent of highway fuel in use by 2010, 15 percent by 2015 and 20 percent by 2020.
» Establishing a Hawaii Renewable Hydrogen Program to develop and manage the state's transition to a renewable hydrogen economy.
» Providing funding to assist the agricultural community interested in developing energy projects.
Sources: Office of the Governor, Hawaii Legislature