South Korean leader Moon’s solar power initiative pays heavy price

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Solar modules destroyed by a landslide in Jaecheon, North Chungcheong Province. Yonhap/THE KOREA HERALD

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is facing severe criticism amid the longest and deadliest monsoon season in South Korea, as his push for solar power has left the whole nation susceptible to landslides.

With 12 landslides reported from mountainside solar farms as of Sunday, concerns are mounting over additional incidents as Moon’s drive for solar farms in recent years has eradicated a natural deterrent against landslides – trees.

A total of 2.32 million trees were cut down for building 4,902 solar farms on mountainsides from 2017 to last year, Korea Forest Service (KFS) said.

After taking office in 2017, Moon pledged to generate 20 per cent of the nation’s electricity with renewable energy sources by 2030, KFS said.

To meet the goal, his administration has since been doling out subsidies for electricity generation by renewable energy sources including solar power.

A KFS official said: “Mountainside solar farms are built on slopes in the shape of staircases. After days of downpour, water pooled on each floor and eroded the ground on which the solar farms have been built.

“The ground, after reaching its limit, eventually collapsed and the rainwater gushed out all at once with sludge. The deluge damaged 12 neighbourhoods on the lower grounds.

“Of 12 mountainside solar farms that triggered landslides, five were built in the 2017-2019 period.”

From Wednesday to Sunday, a task force comprised of 342 KFS officials conducted emergency safety checks on 2,180 mountainside solar farms within a 300m radius of facilities including farmhouses and stables.

As for reasons for the landslides, experts pointed out damages solar farms inflicted on the ground when they were built.

Lee Young-jae, a civil engineering professor at Kyungpook National University, said: “Mountainside solar farms have a direct link with the landslides.

“After extensive construction of such solar farms, the mountain’s structure and the ground’s rigidity have to be restored. However, restorations are rarely done.”

Lee Su-gon, a former civil engineering professor at the University of Seoul, added: “When a fork lane digs out trees, it stirs up the solid ground and makes the soil all crumbly. As rainwater seeps inside, there is a higher chance for the crumbly soil run down the slope.

“For solar farms, their priority is profit, not landslides, so not enough attention is paid to landslides.”

However, others contradicted the argument.

Another KFS official said: “Of 667 landslides reported in August, only 12 were from mountainside solar farms, so it’s difficult to find a direct cause.”

And Park Chang-geun, a civil engineering professor at Catholic Kwandong University, said: “Though it’s unclear whether the installation of solar farms contributed to the landslides, mountain slopes are danger zones in the first place.

“Even if there are trees, there is a high risk of landslides in evergreen forests with shallow roots.”

Statistics also show a weak correlation between mountainside solar farms and landslides.

In 2018, areas of newly built solar farms and the amount of rainfall both increased substantially. However, landslides only decreased by 40 per cent in the same period.

More rain is expected as typhoon Jangmi made landfall in the Korean Peninsula on Monday.