Farmer Kim Hong-tae stands and looks out over his field, glinting in the winter sunlight. With the first signs of spring still a month away, Kim’s crops are already ripe for harvest. In fact, they always are, as long as there’s sunlight.
Kim, 61, is a solar farmer, part of a nascent movement with the potential to transform both agriculture and energy in South Korea. On a field measuring some 1,320 square meters, he has installed solar panels with a capacity of 83 kilowatts — enough to power several homes.
As farmers have done before him for thousands of years, Kim is using his land to harness the power of the sun and convert it to energy. The only difference is that he produces electrical energy, rather than carbohydrates in the form of plants. The new form of agriculture is commonly known as agricultural photovoltaics, or “agri-PV.” (Photovoltaics is the industry term for most solar panel technology).
Kim is one of nine new solar farmers in Miwon, a small town in North Chungcheong Province. On Apr. 25, 2017, national media descended on the town to report on the creation of “Korea’s first agri-PV power station.” Then-energy minister Joo Hyung hwan and other besuited VIPs lined up with shovels for a groundbreaking ceremony and photo shoot. There was talk of building 10,000 farm solar plants nationwide by 2020.
No one could have predicted South Korea’s current predicament 100 years ago. The country was still an overwhelmingly agricultural society — even Seoul, the capital, was home to fewer than 500,000 people.
But the rapid industrialization of the late 20th century drew so many younger South Koreans to the capital region and other cities that farming villages were practically drained of workers.
Now, as each decade passes, South Korea’s farming population grows smaller and older at an alarming rate. In 2016, the country had nearly three percent fewer farmers than in 2015, more than 53 percent of whom were aged 60 or above.
On the other hand, that means more land is available for installing solar panels without sacrificing the production of other crops.
Hong Jun-hee, a professor of energy IT at Gachon University, believes solar farming signals a new future for agriculture.
“Agriculture is a very labor-intensive mode of production,” he said. “But when electricity is produced, it becomes a capital-centered mode of production. You invest capital in generating facilities and those facilities automatically generate electricity, which you sell to make a profit. I think this counts as an agricultural revolution.”
Agri-PV experiments like Kim’s farm can provide much of the extra renewable energy required by South Korea. They have the potential to reduce air pollution and waste and offer virtually labor-free income for the country’s rapidly aging farming population.
Yet even agri-PV has its critics. One of them is Hansalim Sunlight Generation Cooperative, the renewable energy branch of South Korea’s leading eco-friendly agricultural co-op. Hansalim doesn’t recognize agri-PV as a legitimate crop.
“As a group working to save farmland, we’ve made it our official policy not to install solar power plants on it,” a Hansalim official told Korea Exposé, requesting anonymity.
But advocates like Hong believe initial resistance will eventually subside. “In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, Luddites opposed weaving machinery, saying it had no soul,” he said. “But now we know the introduction of machines was just part of the flow of history.”
In fact, agri-PV does not have to monopolize farmland. Countries including Japan, Germany, the United States and India have all experimented with combinations of conventional crops and solar panels in the same fields.
Combining wheat crop and solar panels on the same area of land could increase its energy yield by 60 percent, said a 2017 study released by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, one of Europe’s largest solar research institutes.
Individual investors like Kim are not the only players in the burgeoning agri-PV market. Some of the country’s biggest companies — many of which manufacture renewable energy hardware such as solar panels, wind turbines and batteries — are getting in on the action too.
Hanwha Solar Power is a subsidiary of the Hanwha Group, one of South Korea’s largest chaebol, or family-run conglomerates. It is currently building three 10 megawatt agri-PV plants in North Gyeongsang Province, and expects to reach a total of 100 megawatts in installed agri-PV capacity “in the near future,” said Choi Dong-il, a Hanwha spokesperson.
“We pay farmers a high level of rent for their land and let them take over the power plant once the rental period is over, which encourages them to take part in the business voluntarily,” said Choi, expressing strong optimism at the overall prospects for solar power — not just agri-PV — in South Korea as a result of the new government’s renewable targets.
These targets, announced in December 2017 are set to bring dramatic change to South Korea’s energy market. They include an increase of renewable sources’ share of the national energy mix — the respective proportions of electricity generated by coal, nuclear, solar power etc — from 7 percent in 2016 to 20 percent in 2030.
The previous month, KEPCO announced a plan to upgrade the national grid in preparation for the anticipated jump in renewable generation.
Local authorities will need to work hard to strike a balance between approving the wave of new solar plant development applications and fine-tuning planning regulations, in order to minimize public opposition to the mushrooming new crop of solar panels.
But if all goes to plan (which remains a big question mark), Kim Hong-tae and thousands of other farmers nationwide may be able to look forward to a comfortable retirement after decades of hard work.
Clouds on the Horizon?
For three generations, Kim’s family has lived in Miwon, growing crops and raising cattle. When Kim was told by the head of the local farming cooperative that solar power was a reliable source of income, he made a bold decision. With retirement some 10 years away, he borrowed money from agricultural bank Nonghyup — collectively with other local farmers — and built a solar farm.
The original plan seemed simple enough. Nonghyup would provide a fixed low-interest loan, and he would harvest sunlight, sell the electricity, and finance his retirement. There would be none of the physical labor that traditional farming demands.
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
Kim’s panels have been fully installed for at least a month. They should be feeding electricity into the national grid and earning him a figure of 200 won per kilowatt hour — or about 25 million won (around $23,000) per year. But KEPCO, South Korea’s largest electric utility, has not connected them to the grid yet.
“The panels in the field cost almost 180 million won [about $165,000],” said Kim, who is paying back interest on the loans he took out to cover 90 percent of the total cost. He added that many of initial construction costs are higher than he was led to believe — the fee for connection to the national electricity grid for example — or had not even been mentioned at first — such as a “change of use charge” levied for using the field for a purpose other than growing crops.
The revised conditions have left Kim frustrated.
“No branch of the government seems to even know who’s responsible for the project,” he said. “If the government wants to look after the interests of farmers and boost renewable energy, I’m in favor of it. But just publicizing these projects is not enough. They need to provide a clear and consistent set of guidelines about how it’ll work and how much it’ll cost.”
KEPCO recently promised to connect Kim’s panels to the grid by the end of February. When contacted by Korea Exposé, KEPCO’s local office claimed it was struggling to work through a backlog of scheduled connections.
“We’ve received 12 grid connection requests at the same time,” said Kim Young-do, an official at the corporation’s East Cheongju branch, close to Kim Hong-tae’s farm. “There’s a process of negotiation and a permit has to be issued, and in January there were some disagreements about connection costs,” he said.
The recent change of government may have contributed to the series of changed policies and prices. That’s little comfort for Kim, but now that the Moon Jae-in administration has published its energy roadmap, the picture for South Korea’s independent power producers looks set to become clearer.
Cover image: Solar agriculture: the future for South Korea’s beleaguered farming industry? (Source: Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons)