How South Korea left the world behind with fuel cell technology

How South Korea left the world behind with fuel cell technology

The majority of individuals with an interest in energy will already be aware of fuel cell technology. To most of us this sounds like a distant dream, and at best something that could potentially power a car that we cannot afford to buy. However, we in the West are now witness to an exceptional success story, coming out of the ‘hydrogen economy’ that is South Korea.

The South Korean success story

Back in 2005, South Korea announced its dream of a ‘hydrogen economy’, where environmentally damaging nuclear power and dirty fossil fuels were replaced with clean, green fuel cells. And not just in vehicles either.

Since then, the country has invested over £3.5million in research and development of fuel cell technology. They have targeted the technology mainly at commercial and industrial users, driving the changes with policy and regulation as well as funding. In 2010, the government launched an 80% subsidy for domestic individuals who wanted to install a fuel cell at their home, taking the cost of installation from a painful £26,000 down to a more affordable £5,000 – £5,500.

World’s largest fuel cell plant

At the start of 2014, the world’s largest fuel cell plant opened in the city of Hwasung in South Korea. The Gyeonggi Green Energy facility takes up an enormous 5.1 acre site, and consists of 21 2.8 MW fuel cells producing a sizeable 59 MW of energy. Waste heat is captured too, and used to provide heat to the areas local district heating network.

This year, a British fuel cell manufacturer, AFC Energy, signed a deal with two South Korean companies to install 50 MW of fuel cells in the city of Daesan. Backed by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, the deal could be worth as much as £1 bn over the next 10 years.

Although much of the development we have witnessed over the last decade has focussed on industrial users, South Korea didn’t forget about the humble motorist either. Last year, Hyundai unveiled the Tucson SUV, the worlds first mass produced hydrogen car. The government has committed to introducing at least 1,000 hydrogen cars and 10 fuelling stations to the country by 2020.

What is driving development in South Korea?

It’s clear that South Korea is on a journey to lead the race when it comes to fuel cell technology, but how have they done it? In a nation with so many competing priorities and issues to contend with, what has driven this rapid development of hydrogen based power?

  • Financially driven

South Korea’s government have always viewed fuel cell technology as their route to a more sustainable future, and are willing to put their money where their mouth is. From research subsidies to capital grants, the nation’s leaders have financially supported their hydrogen economy since committing to it a decade ago.

  • Target driven

South Korea is ambitious when it comes to climate change targets. The government is aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by the year 2020. Not only that, but they have demanded that their largest utilities suppliers source a minimum of 10% of their output from renewable sources by 2022. Fuel cells, if widely adopted, could go a long way towards meeting these targets, encouraging commercial investment as well as state investment into research and development projects.

  • Policy driven

A recent announcement from The South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE) revealed a plan to introduce the second phase of the Renewable Portfolio Standard, which will serve to expand the obligations of major energy users in the country. Implementation of this is expected in 2016, and it is anticipated that this will stimulate an even greater market opportunity than the current one provided through the utility company regulations.

  • Need driven

South Korea, much like Japan, has always been heavily reliant on energy produced through nuclear power. Despite bring the 8th largest trading nation in the world, South Korea narrowly avoided rolling blackouts in the summer of 2013, as the nation’s nuclear regulator had to shut down six of their 23 nuclear reactors because of a political firestorm. This, along with the desire for future energy security, has urged the nation to pour more resources into the development of fuel cell technology.

The combination of all these driving forces has enabled South Korea to really commit to the development of this technology. Their commitment has resulted in developments and delivery that other nations can only dream of. Their reward? To sit in their rightful place as a world leader on hydrogen fuel cell technology.