Blackout in Seoul: Smart Grid Companies See Surging Interest

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A couple of weeks ago, I came back to my office from a seminar in Seoul. When I stood in front of the elevator door, the light in the hall went out, along with the elevator sign lamp. The elevator indicators quickly recovered in few seconds. I thought that the lobby lights would also shortly be turned on, but the outage continued for over 30 minutes in my building.

I thought that there must have been big trouble, an accident, or even an act of terror, because I’ve never experienced such an outage lasting over several minutes in my 30 years of working in the South Korean capital. Unlike in some major North American cities, electricity outages are not common events for Seoulites.

That day, Seoul and other major cities in Korea experienced unprecedented and massive blackouts. The blackouts started around 3 p.m. and lasted for 30 minutes each as they rolled across areas of Seoul, Busan, and several other big cities. The news media reported widespread turmoil. Firefighters were swamped with hundreds of emergency calls from people trapped in elevators. Non-working traffic signals caused huge traffic jams. Hundreds of factories without backup uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems were hit by power failures. The media also pointed out that some military bases also experienced outages, meaning that national defense was compromised during the incident.

The government attributed the blackouts to unseasonably high temperatures, about 5 degrees higher than the average 26ºC (79ºF) for September, which increased electricity demand for air conditioners. At the same time, some major power plants were in maintenance shutdowns at the time.

The aftermath continues. President Lee Myung Bak blamed the Korea Power Exchange (KPX) for failing to estimate exactly what the daily peak-hour demand would be. Citizens and commercial and industrial consumers are reportedly preparing lawsuits to recoup their losses.

The breakdowns were surprising because KEPCO,the sole utility in Korea, has boasted of its stable and advanced capabilities in power supply. In fact, Korea claims one of the shortest average blackout periods per-household-per-year in the world (16 minutes), along with Japan (11 min) — meaning that Korea is one of the most advanced countries in regard to grid stability. KEPCO often highlights the comparison on this measure with the United Kingdom (78 minutes), and the United States (138 minutes).

Several factors likely contributed to the blackouts. In part it was a man-made failure, brought on by faulty estimations of daily power consumption during a time of unexpectedly high temperatures. Some industry officials insist that current power-demand forecasting mechanisms should be re-calibrated. Others assert that new power-plant construction must be planned to meet growing electricity demand. In fact, according to the Ministry of Knowledge and Economy, Koreans tend to consume more electricity per capita than inhabitants of many developed nations (South Korea: 8.833 kWh; Japan: 7,818; Germany: 7,148; Great Britain: 5,607 kWh). One contributor to heavy consumption patterns in Korea is the low price of electricity ($0.072/kWh) as compared to the United States ($0.099), Japan ($0.173), France: ($0.122), etc. These demand and supply factors were undoubtedly interwoven in the recent outage.

One result is that people are now paying more attention to the newest solution: the smart grid. The stock prices of Korean domestic smart grid-related companies surged following the outage.

The smart grid presents opportunities for utilities and their customers to benefit from the efficient management of energy and advanced equipment and devices. Moreover, it offers significant opportunities to wisely manage a nation’s energy sources by potentially reducing the need for additional generation sources, better integrating renewable and non-renewable generation sources into the grid’s operations, reducing outages and cascading problems, and enabling consumers and businesses to better manage their energy consumption.

As shown in the table below, Korean players are following a systematic roadmap for the realization of advanced substation and distribution automation as a part of a full-scale smart grid deployment. Given the estimated level of technology self-assessment, South Korea is one of the front-runners in smart grid deployments.

Much of the direct impact of this outage will be to educate general consumers about the capability of the smart grid. I believe that this outage could be a meaningful tipping point for the Korean electricity industry.

Andy Bae is an analyst at Pike Research with a focus on smart energy in the Asia Pacific region.

Article appearing courtesy Matter Network.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.