Go Big with Homegrown: South Korea To Build Massive Wind Project0

Jeffrey Perkel | Wed Feb 1 2012 |

How much wind power can you get for $9 billion? According to South Korea, about 2.5 gigawatts, or 71 percent of the total offshore capacity available today.

This past November, the South Korean Ministry of Knowledge Economy unveiled a massive new wind energy project to be constructed along its southwest coast—a project that some people, like energy consultant Alan Nogee, are calling the largest wind project in the world “onshore or offshore.” But just how big is it?

“2.5 GW is an enormous wind farm,” says Sean Casten, CEO of Recycled Energy Development. “In fact, 2.5 GW is an enormous power plant of any power plant type. So in terms of scale, this is nothing to sneeze about; this is a huge investment.”

Steven Kopits, Managing Director at Douglas Westwood, says 2.5 GW is approximately equivalent to “two good-sized coal plants or two biggish units on a nuclear plant.” At that size, it may influence regional energy markets—it represents 2.5 GW South Korea won’t have to import and “can be a meaningful source of power in the region.” But it probably won’t influence the broader global energy market, he says.

Each blade will probably measure some   60 – 70 meters across or more, making the rotor diameter twice the wingspan of a 747 jet.

Kopits points out that 2.5 GW is the site’s “nameplate capacity”—the maximum generating capacity possible if all the turbines are operating. But wind isn’t always that reliable. As Kopits puts it, “the wind don’t blow all the time.” Actual utilization will probably be closer to 40 percent, he says, or about 1 GW.

The anatomy of a wind farm

Judging by nameplate capacity and the reported 3 – 7 MW per turbine, the South Korean offshore farm will likely comprise hundreds of turbines. Each blade, says Kopits, will probably measure some 60 – 70 meters across or more, making the rotor diameter twice the wingspan of a 747 jet. But it won’t be easy to complete.

The attraction of offshore wind is that it is, well, offshore. Larger, taller structures can be erected without worrying about zoning ordinances and sightlines as the wind tends to blow more consistently offshore.

Yet according to Casten, offshore wind is about twice as expensive as onshore wind, if for no other reason than that offshore wind is, again, offshore.

That complicates politics, as the resulting electricity is expensive; it complicates installation and repair; and it complicates transmission, as cable must be laid to transport the harnessed energy on shore. In fact, everything about offshore wind is expensive. “To go and literally tighten a bolt on an offshore wind turbine is going to cost you a lot of money,” Wu says. “That’s not something you want to do on a regular basis.”

Homegrown Wind

South Korea has said it hopes to develop wind energy into a “flagship” industry, alongside semiconductors and shipbuilding. While they have relatively little experience in wind energy, South Korea plans to pursue the project using only homegrown talent. “That is a very bold and somewhat risky move,” says Nogee, “but one that will really move the overall industry forward if it’s successful.”

The boom in onshore wind turbine installations has caused prices to fall, squeezing profit margins. That’s bad for the suppliers, but good for the industry.

In fact, according to Wu, that’s the real point of the South Korea’s big-time investment: to set the country up as a player in the global wind energy economy. “The point is to create an export industry,” he says.

The companies tapped to take on this project, he says—names like Daewoo, Doosan, and Hyundai—certainly have the ability to do that. These companies represent some of the largest shipbuilding, marine engineering, and heavy manufacturing companies in the world.

At the same time, they are entering an already crowded marketplace at a difficult time for the industry. That’s because the boom in onshore wind turbine installations has caused prices to fall, squeezing profit margins. That’s bad for the suppliers, Wu says, but good for the industry as it makes wind power more affordable. Indeed, electricity from onshore wind is now priced comparably to (though still slightly more expensive than) coal and natural gas. According to research by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, “the average wind farm will be fully competitive [with coal, gas, and nuclear facilities] by 2016.”

As a result, onshore turbine manufacturers in Europe, China, and Japan are looking for new markets. Naturally, they, too, are beginning to invest heavily in offshore wind. Says Wu, there is an opening, but “that’s another challenge that eventually Korean companies will have to overcome.”

Illustration by Paul Samples.