South Korea’s Sustainability Efforts Showing Up at Olympic Games

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By Elaine Ramirez

The tiny mountain town known for a ski resort and corn and potato farms now boasts hosting the first Winter Olympics to be certified sustainable, spotlighting South Korea’s efforts to clean up its economy.

To support the Pyeongchang games, South Korea invested heavily in electric vehicles and charging stations, new wind turbines, and green stadiums for events. The country, one of the world’s top 10 polluters, aims to increase from 5 percent to 20 percent the amount of electricity it gets from renewable sources by 2030, and hosting the Olympics could draw attention to those efforts.

“I believe they made an impressive effort, specifically in the area of environmentally friendly vehicles,” Roh Hyun-seog of Yonsei University’s Department of Environmental Engineering said. “Just the use of these aspects have a publicity effect on the general public. I believe it will encourage people to participate in greenhouse gas reduction.”

Pyeongchang is the first Olympic Winter Games to meet the requirements of ISO 20121, the international certification for event sustainability management systems.

As part of its bid to host the games, Pyeongchang’s organizing committee pledged to keep greenhouse gas emissions low using energy-efficient buildings, environmentally friendly transportation systems, renewable energy investments, and “green procurement” methods.

Revving Up After the Games

While those investments were part of the city’s Olympic bid, they could spur wider adoption of electric or hydrogen cars even after the games conclude. Pyeongchang bought 150 electric cars, 24 charging stations, and another 15 hydrogen vehicles.

“Based on the daily traffic size aside from games time, the current number of new charging stations were deemed appropriate for beyond games-time use. More would have been redundant,” Jisook Park, a representative of the organizing committee, said. That could be a “catalyst” to promote electric vehicles in Korea, Park said.

The Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy said this month it would maintain subsidies for electric car purchases until 2022. More than 2,600 quick charging stations were to be installed nationwide by the end of 2017.

“The sustainability [movement] is trying to change this nasty habit that we have of depending on automobiles,” Chungha Cha, founder of the Re-imagining Cities Foundation and vice chair of the Korea Green Building Council, said.

Wind Power Won’t Blow Away

In the mountainous host city, one of the nation’s largest wind turbine clusters, additional wind farms were installed and are expected to generate more energy than the event will need, organizers said. Pyeongchang’s new 30-megawatt, 15-generator wind farm went into operation in March 2016, giving the region 92 wind turbines.

The wind farms are already connected to the national grid controlled by monopoly power supplier Korea Electric Power Corp.. Park said the added capacity will contribute to the government’s target of raising its clean energy ratio.

But South Korea still lacks the technology to rely on wind energy, which is only possible in certain areas, like Pyeongchang and the southern resort island of Jeju, Roh noted.

“The Olympics are important, but it will be difficult for wind energy to be used outside these regions,” Roh said.

Going Green in Pursuit of Gold

As part of its green push, Pyeongchang made its buildings as sustainable as possible.

Six newly constructed venues for the games run on solar and geothermal generators and have been designed to minimize energy loss, earning Green Standard for Energy and Environmental Design (G-SEED) certification—the Korean version of the U.S.'s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating.

The Gangneung Hockey Centre and a park were also built on the site of old landfills.

Nurturing renewable energy, such as photovoltaic and geothermal, is already one of South Korea’s priorities, Park said. Solar power is generated in many of the country’s private households.

“In the process of further growth and expansion of [the renewable energy policy], Pyeongchang competition venues can set a benchmark for different public and private building properties that can be planned for development in the future,” Park said.

But experts are mixed on whether these venues will have much of a long-term effect on South Korea as it tries to boost its renewable energy use.

“I believe the overall impact of renewable energy in the Olympics will be positive, but we have more internal problems to focus on to reach our country’s goals,” Roh said.

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