While many clean energy advocates and investors around the world laud German innovation and watch China’s surge in the development of technologies such as solar and wind energy, Korea has continued its commitment to boosting its clean energy sector.
Both the private sector and government in Korea have increased spending on clean energy and green technology development in the past few years. Korea’s Ministry of Knowledge Economy has worked with private firms to find new improvements in battery technology, photovoltaics, geothermal power generation, and biofuels. And this year, the Korea government expects to inject 1 trillion won (US$900 million) into current and next generation clean energy sources.
Korea has always been susceptible to fuel price fluctuations because it relies on fossil fuel imports. But what is compelling about Korea’s energy policy is that energy independence is not solely driving the country’s innovation in new energy technologies. Despite having limited natural resources, Korea has a history of building its economy based on exports. In the 1970s and 1980s, the country and its workers began to be a huge mover in the steel and shipbuilding industries. The following decades, semiconductors and electronics sold abroad continued to fuel economic growth. Now Korean automobiles, a laughing stock during the 1980s, are competing with American and Japanese models here in the United States.
Now Korea sees current investment in clean energy technologies as key to future exports. By 2015, the Korean government expects such technologies to be exported at a value of US$40 billion. That is a small slice of Korea’s economy–in 2009 Korea’s total exports were worth about US$375 billion–but Korea’s plan as it stands is still an impressive goal.
Much can change in five years, but Korea’s commitment to a small but growing sector should send a message to other countries about the potential that clean energy can have for growing economies in the long term. Many in the United States lament the fact that our manufacturing sector has declined. But as more residents seek to improve their homes’ energy efficiency, commercial building landlords seek to cut utility costs, and companies strive for a leaner supply chain, economic opportunities abroad are waiting for entrepreneurs involved in anything from LED bulbs to the latest and greatest battery technologies.
The United States and European Union have a chance to reinvigorate their manufacturing sectors while creating employment opportunities at home. Any country that drags its feet, however, could find itself left behind in the clean energy R&D race, and at the end of this decade, could be sending money abroad to buy technologies from countries like China and Korea.