January 22, 2019

Seoul Experiments with Grassroots-Driven Energy Transition

Map of energy-independent villages in Seoul
Locations of energy-independent villages in Seoul

In 2016, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group awarded the Seoul Metropolitan Government its Social Equity and Climate Change Project Award for the city’s Energy Welfare Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Program, which is a package of various direct and indirect support initiatives that aim to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions and the associated risks that disproportionately threaten low-income residents while also providing better energy services at lower costs to the same population under the energy poverty line. The collaboration between the local government and the private sector (both businesses and civic actors) has shown immediate results since the launch of the program in 2015. The city government financed energy retrofits for 1,295 households in 2015 and 1,050 more in 2016, and replaced 2,400 conventional lightbulbs with LEDs. Perhaps the most significant intervention was the installation of 1,600 micro-photovoltaics (PVs) in low-income neighborhoods, which led to a substantial decrease in energy consumption and associated costs upon the launch of the program.

The program is backed by the Seoul Energy Welfare Civic Fund, a financing scheme devised by the city government in which it created a “virtual power plant” that collects money from energy saved; US $178,000 from 5 megawatts of electricity saved by 17 municipal buildings was deposited to the fund in 2015. Thirty-four businesses and 16 universities made pledges to save 5 megawatts to be contributed to the fund; 23,605 citizens participated as well. In 2016, the fund totaled US $530,503; in 2017, US $975,000. The size of contribution is expected to continue to increase, with a target of reaching US $2.7 million by 2020.

Citizens at the Center of the “City of Sunlight”

At the heart of the success achieved in such a short span of time by the Energy Welfare PPP Program lies the existing social capital the city already had through its energy policies and civic engagement campaigns. The Energy Welfare PPP program is just one point in a larger constellation of policies, programs, and actors that have come together to create this success.

Over the past five years, “Energy Independent Villages” — communities with high degrees of energy independence, efficiency, and conservation — have expanded in Seoul. These villages grew out of discussions at a children’s library in Seongdaegol Village, and the library remains a key place for the community, becoming a dynamic center for knowledge exchange on energy conservation. The ideas generated from this place and actively implemented by the Seongdaegol community range from using power strips to save standby power to a “Lights-out Movement” in which the residents turn off all lights for a period of hours during designated days. Every household and business shares its energy consumption levels and energy-saving performance in a communal graph, generating peer pressure, motivation, and a sense of joint ownership. The community also has been hosting lectures, workshops, festivals, concerts, and frequently, film screenings powered by electricity generated by bicycle rides.

Seongdaegol Village communal energy consumption and saving graphs (photos courtesy of the author)

In other cases, such as with the Saejaemi Energy Independent Village, the movement was triggered by a nonprofit organization, “Environment Justice,” together with the Saejaemi Resident Council. The community members were initially reticent but then the idea gradually gained support over the course of 18 months as the nonprofit and the council continued to run various education programs. The residents then fully embraced the idea of energy independence, with the community rapidly adopting urban farming and transferring saved resources to welfare programs for the elderly. Since achieving energy independence, the mountain district of Eunpyeong-gu has become a hub of corporate sustainability activities that support energy and welfare programs.

With a variety of stories, approaches, schemes, and sizes, Seoul had established 70 energy-independent villages by 2017, and the number is set to increase to 100 by the end of 2018. All of these villages now heavily rely on solar panels to generate electricity. On average, these villages have realized a 4.2 percent decrease in electricity consumption each year; the ones that implemented the program for three consecutive years without dropping out in the middle, which numbered 27 by 2017, have realized about a 15 percent decrease over the three years.

Rethinking Energy: What Does Energy Mean to the Public?

Even a single program such as the Energy Welfare PPP Program lies upon complex realities of demand, supply, and market forces, as well as the fundamental question of what energy means to the community, economy, and country. South Korea relies on fuel imports for 97 percent of its primary energy consumption and supplies 70 percent of its electricity from thermal coal and nuclear reactors. However, long-term energy economics favor policy change, as the costs for renewables fall sharply and liquefied natural gas prices slide.

In response to these realities, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has been applying significant effort to support and drive changes in the energy landscape. The Seoul Sustainable Energy Action Plan, the city’s phase II energy master plan established in 2014, aims to increase the city’s energy self-reliance rate to 20 percent by 2020 (it was 4.2 percent in 2014) and reduce 10 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions by the same year. The city government institutionalized the Seoul Energy Corporation in 2016 in order to coordinate and implement the city’s energy and environment policies. About 40 percent of the households in Seoul are currently participating in energy conservation activities to some degree. As citizen engagement and participation continues to grow, Seoul’s residents will evaluate what energy means for them and work to foster a society that nurtures further innovations to aid the city’s energy transition.

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

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