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Beta-testing the carbon-free future of Jeju
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승인 2010.01.27  22:34:27
페이스북 트위터

“Think of it as some phonetic codes and read it again, then Gapado means ‘an island that pays back,’” jokes Kim Dae Hwan, wearing a broad smile and displaying carefully measured poise and manners. But what does the island pay back?

It is a sunny Saturday morning, and Kim, the chief executive of Daekyung Engineering, a Jeju-based construction and engineering firm, is leading a group of 25 journalists, professors and activists to Gapado.

The boat that carries the unlikely group to the island used to be a fishing boat and is too small to ferry all the passengers in a single trip. I was barely allowed in for the second trip, but the shoddy fiberglass boat cut across the 5.5-kilometer-wide strait between Jeju and Gapado at an incredible speed, leaving behind clouds of brownish carbon dioxide fumes that quickly mixed with the foaming sea water.

“Within 25 or so years, the only carbon dioxide emitted from the island will be the breath of residents and olle hikers,” Kim said, as he led our group of carbon bipeds to the main olle trail on Gapado. The central corridor that snakes through the 84-hectare island is adorned with kitschy mural painting after painting, all blaring crude environmental messages.

The carbon-free vision for Gapado’s future will do away with the need for overhead power lines and use battery- and people-powered transport. Photos by Jean K. Min
Gapado is one of the 10 or so islets that are part of Jeju Province. The residents earn their living by fishing for yellowtail, cuttlefish and other indigenous fish stock skimming through the Jeju waters or by harvesting barley. In its heyday, the island was bustling with more than 900 fishermen, farmers and their families. Its economy has since taken a nosedive, though.

Today, some 100 active residents are estimated to be on the island, and the official head count is a little more than 200.

“The youngest [working] resident on the island is 51 years old.” one of the executives from Daekyung Engineer-ing told me before I took the short journey. But when I met the town leader, he quickly refuted the claim, saying there are at least five men still in their 30s.

With Gapado’s fishing and farming-based economy steadily losing steam, the only chance to kick-start the island’s economic engine seems to lie with tourism. However, Gapado faces a formidable competitor on the tourism front: Marado, an exotic islet off the south of Gapado.

Marado already enjoyed bragging rights as the southern-most island of Korea before comedian Lee Chang Myung joked about the islet in a 1997 television commercial, making it a household name with Koreans.

Today, a fleet of sleek twin hull boats sail past Gapado on 14 round trips each day, ferrying thousands of tourists to Marado. Gapado, on the contrary, greets its boat only three times a day, and it carries mostly island residents and the occasional tourist with fishing on his or her mind.

The carbon-free vision for Gapado’s future will do away with the need for overhead power lines and use battery- and people-powered transport. Photos by Jean K. Min
To reboot its economy with tourism, Gapado is in desperate need of establishing its brand as an attractive tourist destination. In early 2008, Daekyung’s Kim approached the islanders with his own answer to re-engineer Gapado as a global showcase for a carbon-free future.

Kim envisions the future of Gapado as a carbon-free island with three key absences: no internal combustion engines, no visual clutter of power lines crisscrossing the island and no carbon dioxide except for that from human breath.

Green energy is nothing new to the residents of Jeju. The island boasts hundreds of giant wind turbines planted along the shore and many local farmers tap into solar-powered boilers and rooftop photovoltaic panels for everyday energy use.

Kim’s idea is radically different: he wishes to install much smaller wind turbine and solar panels in each home on Gapado and wire them together to form an island-wide micro-grid.

Today’s green energy still relies on the brute force of centralized power generation and distribution models inherited from the days of old-school energy policies. Kim’s micro-grid, however, is being rethought from its core by incorporating a massively distributed but smartly controlled micro power-grid, owned by the people.

In Kim’s model, the distribution of electricity from the main power station would give way to the more efficient and smart power management of the micro-grid system. Each home would have either a wind turbine or photovoltaic panels installed, which again would be wired to the main grid. As the homes would be wired together from the ground up, the ugly power lines emanating from a huge diesel engine generator that currently supplies power to hundreds of households on the island would be eliminated.

Developing an algorithm to power homes through a smartly managed micro-grid is a challenge, but is likely to become feasible someday soon. But can Kim persuade farmers to ditch their machines and tools powered mostly by internal combustion engines? Heavy machinery requires a sudden gush of torque that is difficult to get from the thinly distributed local green energy network.

Kim is confident that battery technology is catching up fast enough to provide a reliable storage of electricity generated by wind and sun. Within a couple of decades, farm machines on the island could be powered by batteries, and motorized road-trains could ferry tourists in addition to transporting farm produce.

Kim’s micro-grid future fits well with another vision of the islanders: the local food movement, known globally as the locavore movement. The barley fields that cover most of the island produce beer barley used by some big-name brewers in Korea. Brewing companies, however, plan to switch their barley source to China soon, as it exports much cheaper grain. Barley farmers on Gapado hope to weather the sudden change in business climate by partnering with a local micro-brewery beer house. Whether it is food, beer or electricity, the residents of Gapado could brag about a purely local but self-sufficient eco-system in the near future, if Kim’s vision is realized.

The carbon-free vision for Gapado’s future will do away with the need for overhead power lines and use battery- and people-powered transport. Photos by Jean K. Min

An island is an ideal place to beta-test a micro-grid system and fine tune its control algorithm, Kim said. If the system performs well and is judged ready for full-scale commercial application, Kim believes he can transplant the model to Jeju and the mainland. Such a routine of scale in the application of systemic innovation is not new. Better Place, an Israel-based start-up that aims to transform ground transportation by employing electric cars and nation-wide battery swap stations, started its first experiment in Hawaii, before it applies the concept to the mainland United States.

If Gapado starts to draw global attention as an ideal showcase for a carbon-free future, the worldwide market will be open to Kim eventually, he hopes. Judging from the warm reception by Gapado residents and the countless greetings and smiles thrown to Kim during our short visit to the island, his idea certainly seems to be catching on with them.

Kim’s Gapado project has also started to draw attention from government officials both in Jeju and in Seoul. The development of green energy sources and eco-friendly economic growth was one of the key taglines adopted by the Lee Myung Bak administration.

Kim believes that Seoul can use Gapado to demonstrate the feasibility of its green energy initiatives. Fortunately for Kim and his Gapado team, Jeju was selected recently as the host city of the 2012 World Conservation Congress. If Gapado by then has prototypes for a carbon-free economy, the islanders will be able to proudly greet thousands of high-ranking officials and green activists expected to attend the Congress from all over the world. It could be a watershed moment for Gapado, when it stands up as a global showcase for a carbon-free future, surpassing, possibly, even Freiburg, Germany, a city well-known for its widespread use of green technology. This is the future by which Gapado would “pay back” its residents, Jeju and the Earth itself.

We motor back to Jeju again, our bodies rocked hard in the tiny boat that is beaten relentlessly by the rough waves of the Jeju waters. The brownish fumes spewing from the boat’s exhaust mix again with the white foam of the sea.

Kim waves us off with a broad and affable smile. The next time I visit Gapado, I hope I can get there without leaving a single carbon footprint (or fumes) on the Jeju waters.

Kim Dae Hwan, the chief executive of Jeju-based Daekyung Engineering, envisions a carbon-free future for Gapado. Photo by Jean K. Min

The carbon-free vision for Gapado’s future will do away with the need for overhead power lines and use battery- and people-powered transport. Photos by Jean K. Min
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