Record cold has South Korea telling citizens: wear long johns

Freezing temperatures in South Korea are pushing energy use to record highs and threatening blackouts. The crisis may prompt Koreans to rethink how to stay warm.

Lee Jin-man/AP Photo
Houses are covered by snow in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Jan. 24. The National Weather Service issued a cold wave watch.

Wear your long johns. That's the message from the South Korean government to citizens this week as record cold weather strains electricity reserves across the country.

The temperature in Seoul hit a decade-low of minus 17.8 degrees C (0 degrees F.) on Sunday, and other parts of Korea are seeing the coldest weather in 96 years. As Koreans turn up their radiators to keep warm, energy usage in the nation has hit record highs. Demand for electricity exceeded 71 gigawatts last week, leaving only 5 percent of the country’s reserves available.

In the short term, the situation has forced Koreans to look at everything from long johns to price systems to reduce electricity demands. In the long term, the crisis has Koreans reconsidering how they think about energy use.

“We can't continue to use power at this rate,” Knowledge Economy Minister Choi Kyung-hwan, who oversees government policy on energy use, said in a televised press conference earlier this month. "With the ongoing cold weather, there is a possibility that Korea’s power demand will hit another record soon, and if conditions worsen, some regions might face a blackout.”

The government has sent a simple message to civil servants: bundle up.

Beginning today, government agencies and public enterprises are required to keep their thermostats below 18 degrees C (64 degrees F.), and turn off the heat altogether during peak electricity demand hours. Space heaters have been banned at these offices, and employees have been encouraged to dress more warmly including by wearing thermal underwear.

Mr. Choi is calling on citizens to join the government’s efforts to reduce energy consumption. He asked the public to lower their home thermostats and take the stairs instead of elevators.

“Excessive power usage is a national waste,” Choi said. “The government is trying very hard to prevent [blackouts] from happening by securing the maximum volume of energy supply, but we are also asking for support from families and companies.”

Public indifference

The public has been slow to take up the call. Low electricity prices set by the government and kept in place for years have encouraged Koreans to simply “plug in” and ignore other energy sources like coal or liquefied natural gas until now.

“This situation is not good,” says Kim Young-chang, adjunct professor of energy studies at Ajou University. He believes that the public's indifference to this winter's energy crisis is due to the low electricity prices. “If the electricity price was high, many people would grumble. Kepco [Korea Electric Power Corporation] is a state-owned company and the government does not allow Kepco to increase tariffs on electricity.”

Mr. Kim, who worked at Kepco for 30 years before moving to academia, believes that energy demand will not fall until the pricing system is overhauled. He believes that the government should introduce an hourly pricing system similar to those in certain parts of the United States, where electricity is more expensive during heavy usage hours.

While the government is unlikely to instate such a system anytime soon, Kim is hopeful that this winter’s energy crisis will incite action from the public.
“People are thinking about why they are using more energy this year,” he says. “In the past they did not think about it. But now people are asking why.”

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