How a Korean fuel cell technology project builds clean power and social value

South Korea was among the first countries impacted by the pandemic. This crisis accelerated companies developing fuel cell technology—and led to a sweeping Green New Deal.

Image courtesy of SK ecoplant.

An overhead image of Korea's Paju fuel cell grid in Wollong-myeon, Paju, Gyeonggi Province

Raphael Rashid

March 5, 2021

min read
  • South Korea government’s comprehensive Green New Deal plan aims to kick-start digital and eco-friendly economic growth.

  • The $140 billion plan generates jobs and creates smart cities, building sustainable-energy infrastructure.

  • As part of this initiative, the Paju fuel cell plant offers green, efficient power to an underserved rural area—a model for future projects.

The Paju fuel cell plant
The Paju fuel cell plant (center) blends in with the surrounding landscape. Image courtesy of SK ecoplant.

Dozens of neatly arranged gray metal boxes quietly hum in rice fields nearby Wollong-myeon, Paju, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea. These boxes are fuel cells, and they blend right into the surrounding landscape because, unlike conventional power plants, fuel cell technology generates electricity without combustion, so it is environmentally friendly and quiet.

The Paju fuel cell plant is highly regarded for creating economic value through green and efficient power generation and for building social value by developing an underserved rural area. Fuel cell technology that offers both economic and social benefits will become Korea’s core energy source in the future.

To launch this fuel cell project, Korea’s SK ecoplant partnered with Korea East-West Power and Seoul City Gas; together, they built a 2,000-square-meter, 8.1-megawatt Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC) power plant, which started commercial operation in September 2020 and now serves electricity to approximately 63,000 households.

Fuel cell technology is a highly efficient, eco-friendly technology that generates electricity through an electrochemical reaction between oxygen and hydrogen extracted from liquefied natural gas (LNG). Fuel cell technology is a distributed-energy resource that can generate energy conveniently and safely, especially in rural areas with low population density, such as Wollong-myeon in Paju.

In Paju, city gas companies have faced difficulties in establishing a supply pipeline in the rural area due to its lack of economic feasibility. The Paju fuel-cell project development included the installation of a city gas pipeline network in the areas where city gas has not been serviced, enabling 74 rural households to enjoy energy welfare.

The Paju fuel cell is the first project in Korea to achieve a win-win fuel cell business in rural areas by allowing city gas companies to secure city gas consumers and by allowing rural residents to use the city gas pipeline. SK ecoplant plans to continue developing this region-customized business model.

Finding new efficiencies through BIM and cloud collaboration

To build safely and quickly, SK ecoplant employed smart construction-models, applying connected BIM technology throughout the design and construction cycle.

SK ecoplant used Autodesk Revit to support BIM workflows, as well as Assemble and BIM 360 for efficient project management. From start to finish, everything was paperless and on the cloud.

These connected BIM solutions brought design and construction models into a 3D environment, which could be viewed and worked on from anywhere. This process was critical, as South Korea was among the first countries to be impacted by COVID-19 in early 2020—just when construction was due to start. The pandemic forced engineers to embrace new technologies, with positive results; workers found they could collaborate with greater flexibility from their smartphones, tablets, and PCs. Daily life around the world was halted due to COVID-19, but the Paju project was not affected; rather, the construction period was actually shortened, thanks to cloud collaboration.

“Amidst this pandemic, we actually created an opportunity to go one step further,” says Mook Lim, head of Energy Operation at SK ecoplant. “Real-time, cloud-based collaboration systems helped create the foundation for us to operate as one team, both internally and with our partners, resulting in a shorter construction period and improved productivity.”

“Real-time, cloud-based collaboration systems helped create the foundation for us to operate as one team, both internally and with our partners, resulting in a shorter construction period and improved productivity.”

—Mook Lim, Head of Energy Operation, SK ecoplant

Building safer through smart construction

A close-up view of the Paju fuel cells
A close-up view of the Paju fuel cells. Image courtesy of SK ecoplant.

Market intelligence firm IDC notes (PDF, p. 18) that the main challenges facing construction companies in South Korea include workforce safety, completing projects on time and budget, and a lack of real-time insights.

By adopting smart-construction technologies, SK ecoplant systemized safety and quality control and improved communication. “In the past, a person in charge of safety-management checks proceeded with these on separate levels, whereas now the construction process and safety and quality management are integrated, enabling safety and quality management linked to the construction situation in real time,” says Kyung-jun Kim, pro of Energy Biz Planning Team at SK ecoplant.

The 3D model was able to identify potential construction issues and key management points in real time, enabling the team to take preventive measures that contributed to shortening construction time by 20% and reducing construction costs by 10%.

Staying on schedule and sustainable with next-level BIM

To efficiently manage the project, SK ecoplant developed a classification system based on cost breakdown structure (CBS) and work breakdown structure (WBS) codes. The company also improved 4D and 5D construction technology by integrating the classification system with BIM data. Integrating 4D BIM meant thorough management of construction process schedules, combining BIM data with project schedule data; 5D technology managed project cost by combining cost data with BIM data.

SK ecoplant has improved the sustainability of the fuel cell business by using performance data. “We wanted to create a repeatable performance model, so we looked to standardize the design, layout, and parts specifications as much as possible based on the existing construction performance data,” Kim says. SK ecoplant expects that that developing specialized standard models using performance data will shorten the bidding and execution period and reduce costs for its fuel cell business.

Kick-starting a Korean New Deal

In June 2020, the South Korean government announced it would pursue the Korean New Deal. From the crisis of the pandemic, the government aims to kick-start digital and eco-friendly economic growth while creating smart cities and generating jobs—with a goal of investing $144 billion and creating more than 1.9 million jobs by 2025.

The Korean New Deal comprises two main policies: the Digital New Deal and the Green New Deal. The Digital New Deal promotes digital innovation in the economy. And the Green New Deal advocates a low-carbon, eco-friendly economy—through building smart cities, green energy infrastructure, and green technologies—with the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Part of this plan calls for 8 gigawatts of national fuel cell capacity by 2040.

Going forward, SK ecoplant will continue its smart-construction practices through digitalization and technology advancement. The company intends to respond to the Korean government’s Green New Deal and policies that foster new energy industries through localization of fuel cells while finding ways to meet social demands with power. By adopting these new practices, SK ecoplant is taking meaningful steps to solidify its position as a leading construction company pioneering the innovation of performance models in the domestic and overseas markets.

Raphael Rashid

About Raphael Rashid

Raphael Rashid is a freelance journalist based in Seoul, South Korea. His writing has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Diplomat, and Nikkei Asia, with a focus on societal issues. He is the author of The Korea We Refuse to See, published in the Korean language.

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