Threat of Total Blackout Looms

      September 20, 2011 12:10

      The threat of a total nationwide blackout is never far away, a National Assembly audit probing the causes of massive power outages that hit the nation last week heard Monday. KEPCO's embattled CEO Yeom Myung-chun told lawmakers this was not the first time that reserve power level fell to dangerously low levels.

      "In the past, there were instances where the reserve power level stood at less than 1 million kW," Yeom admitted. In other words, KEPCO had narrowly avoided nationwide blackouts before.

      According to the Ministry of Knowledge Economy, Korea's reserve power ratio will stand at a dangerously low 3.7-6.6 percent until 2015 unless aggressive steps are taken to bolster electricity production. The reserve power ratio needs to reach 15 percent to be deemed as stable. That means last week's massive blackout was not a freak incident, and Korea faces a constant threat of major power outages over the next four to five years.

      The reserve power ratio is usually the surplus electricity that is left after demand is met, but the government includes the generating capacity of idle power plants that are under repair in calculating the reserve power ratio, which means that the ratio would actually have to be 15-17 percent to be deemed stable.

      A policeman signals at an intersection in Sogong-dong, Seoul last Thursday, when the capital suffered massive power cuts.

      ◆ Repeated Errors in Projecting Power Consumption

      According to a long-term power supply and demand blueprint presented by KEPCO late last year, the reserve power ratio is forecast to drop to 4.8 percent in 2012 and to 3.7 percent in 2013 given increasing demand. It is expected to rise to 6.6 percent in 2014 and 2015, but that would still be far short of the stable level. The reason for the shortage stems from erroneous projections of electricity demand and scrapped or delayed construction of generation facilities.

      In a basic electricity supply plan the government announced in 2006, maximum power demand in 2011 was estimated at 65.94 million kW, but was grossly inaccurate, and actual power demand has already peaked at 73.13 million kW so far this year. That is even higher than the 71.8 million kW demand the government forecast for 2020.

      This points to serious flaws in the forecasting system.

      Moreover, there several power plant construction plans have been indefinitely postponed or canceled. According to KEPCO, plans to build a total of 7.16 million kW worth of power generating facilities were delayed or scrapped.

      ◆ Blackouts Even in Spring and Fall

      With the shortage in power supply, experts say the threat of blackouts even in spring and fall has increased. Each power plant must undergo around 30 days of maintenance a year, which means power supply will run dangerously low, forcing maintenance and repairs to be concentrated in spring and fall to avoid the peak demand seasons of summer and winter.

      That means even a slight surge in demand in spring or fall could threaten a blackout. Last Thursday, when the massive blackout occurred, power plants capable of generating a total of 8.34 million kW of electricity or more than 10 percent of Korea's total power output were under maintenance.

      Experts say the only remedy for now is to curb demand by raising prices at peak times. Lee Soo-il, a researcher at the state-run Korea Development Institute, said, "It would take four years to build a single power plant even if we start now, so the only thing we can do for now is to reduce demand."

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