At around 12:30 PM on January 19th, four workers who were working on curing concrete at an apartment construction site in Daegu collapsed from breathing difficulties.

During winter construction, the water contained in the concrete may freeze and cause cracks.

In order to make the concrete harden well without freezing, it was smothered by poisonous gas while smelting lignite.

Three hours later on the same day, at a construction site in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, a female worker in her 60s collapsed for the same reason.

Accidents like this happen every winter at construction sites across the country.

In December 2017, two people lost their lives in Gimpo.

On January 16, 2019, two people died in the same accident at an apartment site in Siheung.

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Lignite is one of the low-quality coals.

Low carbon content and high moisture content.

It also has less calorific value than bituminous coal (bituminous coal) or anthracite coal, which has a higher degree of carbonization.

It leaves various toxic substances such as carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides (Sox), nitrogen oxides (NOx), fine dust, and heavy metals, as well as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

But why use it?

Because it's cheap.

In an era where 'clean energy' is in the spotlight, coal has long been driven (known as) to be eliminated due to problems such as exhaust gas and fine dust.

Lignite is among the most 'dirty' of them.

However, there are countries that rely on such lignite for a significant proportion of their electricity production.

The country is counted as a world leader in clean and renewable energy and is one of the countries that set a model for Korea's nuclear-free policy establishment.

That's right, Germany.

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Use of lignite from Germany, a leading country in 'clean energy'

There is a lot of lignite in Germany.

The geology is different from Korea, which produces a lot of anthracite.

Germany has used its abundant lignite for industrialization since ancient times.

It's not just about the times when the Nazis started World War II.

According to the World Coal Association and the European Union for Environmental Health (HEAL), Germany ranked first in both production and consumption of lignite until 2015, accounting for 17% of the world's total.

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 Germany has been hard at work transitioning to cleaner energies, such as LNG and wind, but still relies on coal for 28% of its power.

Among coal, lignite accounted for 18.7% of Germany's total power generation last year, which is equivalent to wind power (20.3%). 

Germany's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy and Climate Protection Robert Havek recently announced that the coal power plant that Germany had built will be restarted.

It was only at the end of last year that the German government and major political parties announced a plan to completely phase out coal power generation by 2030 and fill 80% of its electricity supply with renewable energy.

Habek's remarks go against the "coal-free agreement" between the German government and each political party. 

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Is it because Harbek is an economist who ignores the environment?

Not like that.

Habek is the leader of the Green Party, calling for a strong response to climate change.

Nevertheless, the decision to increase the power generation of coal - especially lignite, which emits a lot of pollutants - is due to the urgent reality of the moment.

 Germany has already been increasing coal power generation since last year due to the weakening wind and decreasing wind power generation.

Germany's coal production in 2021 reached 125 million tons, up 17% from the previous year (2020), exceeding the 2019 level.

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 There, another major energy source, LNG, was running out.

After Germany imposed sanctions on Russia as a major member of NATO, Russia began to lock down natural gas pipes.

In mid-June, Gazprom of Russia notified Siemens Energy that it would reduce the amount of gas supplied to Germany to a third of the previous level due to the delay in returning the pumping equipment of Nordstream 1, which had been repaired by Siemens Energy.

For Germany, which has to stock up on natural gas before winter, when the demand for energy for heating greatly increases, it is no longer in a position to cover cold rice, hot rice, clean rice, and muddy rice.

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Oil and gas are expensive, and we cannot rely on base power generation on solar-wind power, which is difficult to provide a steady power supply...

Difficult countries have begun to increase coal power generation.

This is a very distinctly unusual situation that has been going on quietly since last year.

I'll mention it after the coal problem is discussed, but for the same reason nuclear power is getting a lot of attention again.

'Dirty energies', which were treated as bad guys due to environmental pollution and safety issues, are coming to the fore again.

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When to blame for 'dirty'... Countries that increase coal power generation

In Europe, Austria and the Netherlands, along with Germany, have also decided to restart coal power plants.

Austria, next door to Germany, has decided to restart all coal-fired power plants after 2020.

The Netherlands, which was once a major natural gas producer and still has gas reserves for 18 years, will also repeal a law that restricts coal power generation for the next two years. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that global coal power production increased by 9% last year.

It is an all-time record.

In the United States and the European Union (EU), it increased by about 20%.

India (12%) and China (9%) also increased significantly.

As a result, coal prices jumped to an all-time high.

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When the price rises, the supply increases.

According to the Korea Energy Economics Institute, global coal production in 2022 is expected to reach 8,111 million tons, the highest level ever. 


Chernobyl?... Countries that continue to increase nuclear power plants

Because of the fear of radioactive contamination, nuclear power was once treated as a more 'dirty' energy than coal in Korea.

But the reality of fear and energy that the public feels emotionally is a different matter.

There are many cases in which political parties and governments in each country that took the lead in opposing nuclear power are turning to pro-nuclear power. 

The UK is a country that started the Industrial Revolution based on coal, and is an energy powerhouse that produces crude oil and natural gas and has a global influence in the field of clean energy.

The British government advocated the expansion of nuclear power in the 'British energy security strategy' announced on April 7th.

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The nuclear category of this report is described as follows.

“Nuclear power accounts for 15% of UK electricity generation, complementing non-sustainable renewable energy, and produces 100 times more energy than a solar facility of the same size.

Only by nuclear power can reliable base generation of sufficient capacity be secured.

Our goal is to have nuclear power account for 25% of UK electricity consumption by 2050.”

To this end, the British government announced that it would build eight new nuclear power plants and raise the competitiveness of the nuclear power plant industry, which fell behind France and others. 

The US Department of Energy has included nuclear power in its clean energy list.

This is because it is responsible for about 20% of U.S. electricity production and generates less carbon.

For the same reason, the European Union has included nuclear power in its 'taxonomy' (a classification system containing a list of environmentally sustainable and 'green' economic activities). 

This is true of countries that import a lot of energy, but Saudi Arabia and Russia, the world's largest oil producers, are also trying to increase the number of nuclear power plants.

Saudi Arabia has been building nuclear power plants since 2011.

The plan was to build 16 nuclear reactors by 2032 to cover 20% of electricity consumption.

For various reasons, this target has been withdrawn and Saudi Arabia's electricity production is still almost 100% oil and gas, but the Saudi government is pushing for the construction of two 1.4GW nuclear power plants again.

(Korea is running in many ways to participate in this project.)

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Russia, which has conquered Europe with natural gas and oil exports, is also pushing for expansion of nuclear power plants.

Russia's goal is to build up to 16 new nuclear power plants by 2045, raising the proportion of power generation from 19.7% last year to 25.0%.

Despite the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima, countries continue to promote nuclear power because it is difficult to change the current energy supply structure, and there is no way to consistently obtain as much electricity with less resources than nuclear power plants. 

The situation is no different in Korea.

According to e-Nara Indicators, a statistical site operated by the government, as of 2019, coal accounted for 40.54%, nuclear power 26.01%, gas 25.74%, and renewable energy 6.48% of Korea's power generation.

In the graph below, if you look at the trend since 2010, the proportion of renewable energy generation is gradually increasing, but there is no significant change in the total composition.

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It should be noted that the import cost of uranium is significantly lower compared to the electricity produced.

According to data from the Korea Energy Agency, the cost of importing uranium is USD 744 million, which is only 0.5% of Korea’s (2021) total energy raw material imports.

(Uranium is imported from the United States, Canada, Australia, etc.) Since it is responsible for 26% of the total power generation with 0.5% of energy imports, there is no such effect in terms of efficiency.

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Any energy source has advantages and disadvantages.

Nuclear power plants have the advantage of being able to handle large-capacity base power generation, but the disadvantage is that once an accident occurs, the damage is large.

Waste disposal is also a difficult problem.

Major countries are trying to make the most of various energy resources by compensating for their shortcomings and taking advantage of their strengths.

Eyes on the ideal, feet on the reality

Developed countries are carbon-neutral and RE100, so they have made up all the good things, but they have turned their eyes to developing countries that use a lot of fossil fuels.

Then, they say it is urgent and increase coal power generation.

Developed countries with many organizations leading the anti-nuclear movement take the lead in expanding nuclear power plants.

Seeing this situation, some people may feel betrayed.

But “no matter how eco-conscious consumers are, they won't be waiting for the wind to blow to check their email or toast their toast [...] It would be a conventional power plant.”

Gretchen Bach wrote in <Grid>, a book that discusses the electric infrastructure revolution necessary in the era of renewable energy.

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Daniel Yegin, vice president of S&P Global, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book on the history of international politics in energy, declared this in the preface of his recent book <New Map>.

“Now we are entering an era of 'energy transition'.

The present world, in which more than 80% of the required energy comes from oil, natural gas, and coal, is moving into the era of renewable energy, leaving behind 30 years of living as such.”

But he also wrote:

“The debate about how quickly the world can and should respond to a changing climate situation, and how much it will cost, is unlikely to be resolved in this decade.”

In such a situation, the wisest response a country can take is to keep an eye on the ideal of carbon neutrality and make steady efforts, but firmly step on the reality.

What is the reality?

One of them can be seen in the graph below.

In the rainy season and the heat that will follow, the demand for air conditioner cooling soars. Let's look at the contribution of electricity production in this case.

Compared to usual, the proportion of LNG increases and the proportion of renewable energy decreases by half.

(Compare the bar graph of generation amount by energy source introduced earlier.) This reality cannot be changed rapidly.

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 In this era when abnormal climates and world-historical events overlap like a perfect storm, it is important to remain flexible with various alternatives as it is impossible to predict for what reason an energy barley pass will strike.

The increase in coal power generation in Germany and other countries mentioned at the beginning of the article is a temporary crisis response.

The long-term goals of expanding renewable energy and carbon neutrality have not been withdrawn.

Energy-related international organizations predict that coal demand will decrease again after next year.

On the one hand, it should be noted that these countries have been maintaining the facilities and manpower to restart coal power plants in a short period of time, even though they have been pushing for the removal of coal for many years.

Energy security... Securing diversity in the end

The essence of 'energy security' is to secure the diversity of energy source suppliers.

The moment you become overly dependent on a particular type of energy source, or on a particular region, it becomes a snare to the neck of that country.

The recent crisis in Germany, which was trying to secure the economy and peace by building a pipeline (nord stream) that imports Russian LNG on a large scale, is evidence of that. 

During his tenure as president of the United States, Donald Trump told Germans about the new Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Germany and Russia.

“Germany is playing in the hands of Russia.

This is because 60-70% of the required energy resources will be supplied from Russia through the new gas pipeline facility.

I think I'd like to say it's okay, but I don't think so.

Germany became a prisoner of war for Russia.”

(at the breakfast meeting with NATO Secretary-General on July 11, 2018)

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German public protested that Trump was attacking Russian gas imports in an attempt to raise the defense cost-sharing price and sell more U.S. LNG to Germany.

Those words weren't wrong, but anyway, in less than five years, Trump's words became a reality, and Germany is preparing for a cold winter by burning lignite to make up for the mistake.

Since the government has changed, is solar power out this time?

Energy source is a matter that determines the life and death of a nation, but even this has become a subject of political debate in Korea.

If at one time, nuclear power plants were swept away by fear without rationally weighing the pros and cons of nuclear power plants, the danger of excessive reaction against those days is evident.

It is also a problem if renewable energy such as solar power is dismissed as corrupt projects of the previous administration.

Expansion of new and renewable energy is a path that Korea must also go, so it is necessary to do it properly.

Sunlight and wind are energy sources that do not have to be imported from other countries, unlike petroleum, coal, and uranium, so they are also essential in terms of energy security. 

However, it is necessary to manage the ecosystem so that the expansion of new and renewable energy is not misused by some private companies to 'get subsidies' or only companies of specific countries are hungry.

This is not just about Korea.

There was also a case in the United States where a private company that advocated a clean energy business caused a scandal with a 'subsidy scam'.

Reflections are also coming from Germany that when the government boosted the solar power business and increased subsidies for electric vehicles, only Chinese companies were full and local companies were put out of business. 

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In order for renewable energy to really change the future of the country, it is not a good idea to install a lot of generators.

The national upgrade of storage devices and transmission and distribution networks must be paralleled to handle solar and wind power generation, which varies according to the weather.

This is also a challenge facing not only Korea but also other countries around the world.

In this field, the government will have a role to play regardless of the government.

(Composition: Hyunsik Lee, D Contents Producer / Contents Design: Jisoo Ok)