Monday, February 12, 2007

Defusing One Crisis?

Energy again appears to be central to diverting the nuclear aims of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). Yesterday's Washington Post described the state of the current negotiations for the shutdown of the North's Yongbyon nuclear complex and a resumption of international nuclear inspections. Along similar lines to the original 1994 deal, it looks like it will take some combination of fuel oil supply and the provision of Western-style civilian nuclear power to get Mr. Kim to give up his nuclear ambitions. However, even if this solution proves mutually agreeable, Pyongyang would still end up with nuclear fuel that might cause problems later, while the five guarantor nations would face a big bill and a long timeline for building the new reactor(s). Why not substitute a package of wind and solar power, instead, along with transferring the technology necessary to make the best use of them? This solution would be at least as beneficial to the DPRK as what is currently on offer, and it could be implemented much faster--while simultaneously allaying many concerns about Pyongyang's real motives.

The typical objections to renewable energy relate to its scale and intermittent output. These would pose less of a problem in North Korea, which is much less highly developed than its southern neighbor. Nor do I imagine NIMBY concerns about viewscapes or "flicker" would become an obstacle. Much of the DPRK's power already comes from another renewable source, in the form of large-scale hydroelectricity. Together with existing coal-fired plants, this would provide the base-load capacity that intermittent wind and solar power would complement, while retaining the country's oil-fired thermal plants to use as backup for days when neither wind nor solar is adequate to meet demand.

1000 current-generation 3.5 MW wind turbines could supply the entire non-hydro portion of the DPRK's reported electric demand of about 4000 MW, assuming a load factor of 30%. At current hardware prices, that would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 B, which might still come in less than the cost of the pair of light-water nuclear reactors agreed to back in 1994.
Making all of this mesh would clearly require a good deal of grid modernization, and that would have to be part of the package. A pilot wind project was installed in Unhari, DPRK in 1999, through the efforts of a California think tank, and this experience might provide a useful starting point for mapping out the details of a wider renewables strategy for North Korea.

At a time when we are looking increasingly to renewable energy as a way to address global climate change, it would be a real bonus if it could help resolve the equally worrying prospect of wider proliferation of nuclear weapons, in increasingly unreliable hands. It could also create genuine win-win outcomes, if the learnings from adapting the DPRK's antiquated electricity infrastructure to handle renewable energy turn out to be applicable--and marketable--elsewhere in the developing world.

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