▲ The energy cafe, driven by solar panel and bicycle pedal power. Photographed by Jeong Ji Hyun
Step into Sungdaegol and you will be taken aback. Not by the plethora of solar panels and wind turbines, but by their complete absence. Despite having been designated as an energy self-sufficient village by the Seoul Metropolitan Government since 2012, the small community in Dongjak-gu, Seoul has an external appearance just like any other quiet neighborhood outside the heart of the capital. It is what goes on inside the minds of its residents that makes the community worthy of its title.
The people of Sungdaegol had not always been so environmentally conscious. In fact, just a few years ago, their biggest concern was establishing a children’s library in their neighborhood. They formed a community group to act upon their concerns and founded the Sungdaegol Children’s Library on October 2010 funded by donations.
The community then went on to organize diverse programs to promote the well-being of its children. When the Fukushima nuclear disaster struck, the largest nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl, the people of Sungdaegol could not help but feel anxious. The fact that the media had stopped reporting on the situation did nothing to ease their concerns. Thus, with the help of environmental organizations such as Green Korea United, they organized special lectures to inform themselves about the truth behind nuclear energy and what was happening at Fukushima.
And the truth was bleak. They learned that a single gram of cesium, a chemical element produced as a byproduct of nuclear fission, wreaks ongoing physical mutations for ten generations after entering a person’s body. They learned how the crippled nuclear plants in Fukushima were releasing nuclear material into the Pacific. And they learned of how nuclear energy was but a short-term solution to the energy crisis, how nuclear plants were designed for a life of about 30 years, and how scientists had yet to find a way to successfully decommission nuclear plants without releasing radioactive waste into the atmosphere.
Eventually, the people of Sungdaegol concluded that they should do something about the energy problem, as citizens of the world’s fourth-biggest nuclear power producing nation. “Our wasteful lifestyles, fueled by consumerism and materialism that encourage the use of ever-bigger cars and larger refrigerators, are squandering energy and spoiling the world we will pass on to our children,” said Kim So Young, head of the Sungdaegol energy movement.
Thus started the energy-conscious efforts of the Sungdaegol community. Though many people would first think of producing renewable energy as a viable solution to the energy problem, Kim dismissed the notion of cities producing their own energy as inefficient and unnecessary. “Cities are just not equipped with the right conditions for the production of renewable energy,” she explained. Providing the example of solar energy, Kim talked about how solar panels need to be placed on sunny rooftops unshadowed by any high-rise buildings. Not many houses in Seoul satisfy these conditions, and even if they did it would cost individuals several hundred million won to install a single solar panel. “Energy self-sufficiency is not about everyone having their own solar panels on their rooftops,” Kim pointed out.
Based on this reasoning, Sungdaegol started to focus on power saving rather than power production. “By saving energy, a person in effect is producing energy that can be used by someone else,” said Kim. In a city like Seoul, with few places adequate for the self-production of energy, reducing the amount of energy used in everyday life is a much more plausible and effective way to help contribute to solving the energy crisis.
▲ Kim So Young, leader of the Sungdaegol Energy Movement. Photographed by Jeong Ji Hyun
“These days, people tend to equate a successful life with a life devoid of manual labor, but this is not true,” said Kim while fanning herself to keep cool in the non-air-conditioned room. Members of the Sungdaegol community make the most out of their own physical power to perform everyday tasks that most people set aside for energy-consuming machines. Hand-laundering clothes or taking a cold shower instead of turning on the air conditioner are but a few ways by which Sungdaegol people save energy. Not using lampshades and minimizing standby power by unplugging all electric cords when leaving home are also often-used methods.
These efforts are displayed at the “power-saving station,” a collection of laminated paper graphs that covers an entire wall of the Sungdaegol Children’s Library. Each graph represents one household’s energy usage per month. By making public the amount of energy used, people can compare their performance with that of their neighbors and motivate themselves to save more energy. More than a thousand households in Sungdaegol are participating in the power-saving movement; the energy they save is enough to supply the energy needs of 450 other families for an entire month.
Setting up “power-saving stations” has become a prerequisite for people interested in the energy movement in Korea. As of now, the “power-saving station” movement has spread to areas including Daejeon, Cheongju, Cheonan, Goyang, and Gangwon province. The Sungdaegol community, as the initiator of the now-widespread movement, received the Grand Prize of the Seoul Environmental Awards as a result.
These days, the Sungdaegol community is expanding its agenda to creating an energy economy—in effect trying to link its energy-saving efforts with boosting economic growth. Therefore, architects, interior designers, carpenters, and technicians from Sungdaegol are in the process of forming a community enterprise to improve insulation in houses and thus elicit the maximum effects from a minimal amount of energy.
An energy café was also established along the same lines. Located inside a makeshift truck, it uses power from solar panels and bicycle pedal power to produce coffee, boil eggs, and make cotton candy.
Kim, who has overseen the entire Sungdaegol energy movement from start to present, says that the key to Sungdaegol’s success has been education. It was only by holding numerous workshops for adults and maintaining ongoing education at the Sungdaegol energy school for children that people were able to develop the will to participate in the energy movement at the expense of their personal discomfort.
“Participation in the energy movement needs to come from the bottom-up,” Kim emphasized. “The younger generation has a tendency to place physical comfort above all else; thus university students, especially those at top-tier universities such as Korea University (KU), should take the lead in participating in the energy movement. They should think about what is better for society as a whole,” she added.
It has only been a few decades since people have lived in such an energy-plentiful world. Perhaps it is time for people to take a step back and revert to the old ways to cut down on their energy use, even if it means foregoing the cold blast of air-conditioning upon entering a building and using a paper fan instead of an electric one. The residents of Sungdaegol certainly seem to be getting along just fine without them.
▲ The Sungdaegol “power-saving station” located at the Sungdaegol Children’s Library.Photographed by Jeong Ji Hyun