Coal-fired generation was long the foundation of the country's electricity supply, but is now making its way as renewable energy is turned on.
South Korea, which faces the problem of suffocating smog in its major cities and is under pressure to meet emission reduction targets, is expected to accelerate meeting green energy targets in an updated 15-year energy plan. .
As reported by Reuters, like Japan they are behind on the issue of turning away from coal. Now it appears that the government decided to shut down some 20 old coal generators and extend operating limits to others, say advisers and energy experts. "We have a great challenge ahead of us to reduce carbon emissions," said Professor Park Jong-bae, who teaches electrical engineering at Konkuk University.
"To some extent, we could do it by expanding renewable energy, but that will not be enough to reduce emissions, so we have to think about reducing energy from coal and weigh the costs of that change," said Professor Park.
South Korea began its transition to cleaner energy in a 2017 power supply plan that aimed to increase the share of renewable energy from 6% to 20% by 2030, while reducing coal and unpopular nuclear power.
Amid public anger, the government in March designated the pollution a "social disaster," and a month later pledged to increase renewable energy to 35% of total energy supply by 2040.
The 2019 power plan is expected to reflect the push to get even more renewable energy and more gas power at the expense of coal, imported from countries such as Indonesia, Australia and Russia.
Coal imports fell nearly 9% in the first four months of 2019 as the share of coal in the country's energy mix fell by more than five percentage points to around 37%, although most of the slack was due to to nuclear energy, rather than renewable energy.
Nuclear power, rejected in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster in 2011, is expected to decline in 2030 as older plants are shut down.
South Korea operates about 60 coal-fired power plants, mainly owned by state-owned companies, which last year supplied about 42% of the country's electricity.
Reuters reports that over the next 15 years, the government had initially planned to retrofit about 20 of them with anti-pollution equipment when they reached 30 years of age in an attempt to extend their operational lifespan, but this has been shelved.
A "shared understanding" has emerged that "adaptation is not that expensive," said Seok Kwang-hoon, a member of the government's power supply plan working group and an advisor to civic group Green Korea.
The energy ministry has asked state utilities to put modernization plans on hold, added an industry source familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named.
However, the change comes even as seven new coal-fired plants are ready for completion in 2022.
Coal capacity will increase in the next few years before declining in 2030, suggesting that the government will have to take more steps to reduce coal's share of energy production.
"To have more renewable energy, we can make coal-fired power plants run downward," said Professor Kang Seung-jin, an energy expert at Korea Polytechnic University, who is helping to map out the 2019 plan.
Last year, the government introduced limits on coal-fired generation, halting operations at five plants from March to June to curb pollution, and this year it has done the same for four plants.
However, South Korea faces a difficult task in boosting renewable energy and meeting the carbon emissions cuts envisioned under the United Nations-sponsored 2015 Paris Agreement climate accord.
The country scores poorly with green groups in its efforts so far to tackle climate change, with the independent Climate Change Performance Index released at last year's Climate Talks in Poland, putting it in the 57th out of the 60 rated countries.
To meet its targets, South Korea would have to reduce coal's contribution to its energy mix by 10 percentage points, or about a quarter, and replace it with more expensive gas, a government adviser told Reuters.
Financing such a sharp fall in coal would be extremely expensive, said the adviser, who asked not to be named, adding that "it could increase electricity bills, so it is a challenge for us to work."
Consultants Wood Mackenzie said South Korea could also miss its existing renewable energy target of 20 percent by 2030, which would likely hit 17 percent.
"Coal will eventually decline to slightly less than 30 percent (of Korea's total power) by 2040," said Wood Mackenzie adviser Zi Sheng Neoh, although he cautioned that this depended on the availability of other energy sources. .
Some experts also fear shutting down old coal plants.
"A strategy to increase renewable energy does not necessarily mean reducing energy from coal," said Professor Jeon Chung-hwan, an expert in mechanical engineering at Pusan National University.
"I'm not saying that we should have more coal power, but we should leave some room to support renewable energy," he closed.