South Korea’s Ambitious Plans for Hydrogen—Power Plants and Cars

Policy  /   /  By Jim Motavalli

When people talk about the international fuel-cell vanguard, they usually put Japan, the U.S. and Germany in the spotlight. But South Korea is quietly fielding an impressive fuel-cell power grid, and is also not only building cars, but a refueling infrastructure, too.

At the end of last year, the South Korean government said it would increase the number of fuel-cell cars on the road from a mere 50 now to 9,000 by 2020, and as many as 630,000 by 2030. The trade and environmental ministries said in a joint statement that hydrogen could power one of every 10 cars sold in 14 years. As part of the overall plan, low-emission cars (including battery electrics and hybrids) are to be 20 percent of the new car fleet (up from two percent now) by 2020.

Gyeonggi Green Energy

The 59-megawatt Gyeonggi Green Energy fuel-cell park in Hwasung City is the world’s largest. (FuelCell Energy photo)

As in the rest of the world, it won’t happen without subsidies. According to the Wall Street Journal, the South Korean government is offering a very strong $23,250 subsidy to fuel-cell car buyers. That’s slightly less than a third the price of a fuel-cell car such as Hyundai’s Tucson on the Korean market.

And hydrogen cars need hydrogen stations. The government also said it would increase the number of refueling stations—10 now—to 520 by 2030. The combination of available stations and the lucrative subsidy should dramatically increase Tucson sales in Korea. The car is sold internationally; it was introduced to the U.S. in 2014. (Hyundai offers the car in California for $499 a month over 36 months, with $2,999 due on signing.)

Korea’s federal fuel-cell budget for 2014 was $30.9 million, up from $33.4 million in 2013. The country had fuel-cell power plants in 2013, with a total of 123 megawatts. But that number is ramping upwards. Korea’s hydrogen-producing capacity of 1.5 million tons annually is slightly behind Japan’s (1.8 million tons). The U.S. has the largest annual capacity—21 million tons.

South Korea’s grid is mostly fossil fuels and nuclear power today, but long-term plans call for 20 percent to come from a variety of renewable sources, including 10 percent from fuel cells (enough to power 400,000 homes).

Refueling a Tucson

Refueling the Tucson in Korea. The plan is for 520 stations by 2030. (Hyundai photo)

South Korea already has the world’s largest fuel-cell plant, in Hwasung City on the northwest coast. Its 21 2.8-megawatt stacks produce a total of 59 megawatts. The fuel-cell park was built by Connecticut’s FuelCell Energy (a leading supplier of stationary fuel cells internationally) for POSCO Energy, Korea’s largest independent power producer.

FuelCell Energy’s president and CEO, Chip Bottone, comments, “South Korea’s high urban density and demand for a cleaner emissions profile enables fuel-cell plants to thrive as a preferred power source.” He said the Hwasung City plant occupies only 5.1 acres of land, but provides its 59 megawatts of continuous electricity to the grid and also enables a district heating system.

In further Korea-Connecticut cross-pollination, the assets of United Technologies South Windsor-based fuel-cell division were sold to Doosan in South Korea and the company is now Doosan Fuel Cell America. Under that name, it recently announced a deal to supply 70 fuel cells—with more than 30 megawatts of power—to a new housing development in Busan, Korea’s second city. The fuel cell complex will be able to supply 71,500 homes in Busan when it’s fully realized in 2017.

Ulsan, home of Hyundai’s complex (the largest car manufacturing site in the world, with five plants and Tucson fuel-cell production) is working to become a Korean hydrogen city. In 2013, 140 families there began using hydrogen to meet all their energy needs. According to Korea IT Times, “The residents of the community pay an average of 10,000 won [$8] a month for heating bills even when they turn the heater in full blast all day long.” Ulsan already produces 60 percent of Korea’s hydrogen.

And a British fuel-cell maker, AFC Energy Plc, is working with two Korean companies (Samyoung Corp. and Chang Shin Chemical) to install 50 megawatts of fuel cell power in Daesan, South Korea. The deal could be worth as much as $1 billion over 10 years.

South Korea’s goal is to cut carbon emissions 11 percent (3.8 million tons) by 2021. There’s no guarantee that government plans will be realized, but it’s a certainty that they’re ambitious.


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