Jeju, one of South Korea's most popular tourist destinations, also is a hub for smart city and renewable energy projects. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
JEJU ISLAND, South Korea, June 30 (UPI) -- The island of Jeju, a laid-back tourist getaway 60 miles off the southern coast of South Korea's mainland, is becoming known for smart city and green energy projects that are leading the way in the high-tech nation.
"Jeju's smart city infrastructure, experience and achievements are ahead of any other Korean city," Gov. Won Hee-ryong said in a recent interview with UPI and other media.
"As Korea's testbed for trying out new policies and pilot projects, Jeju is much like a smart city research center."
While South Korea as a whole has lagged other developed nations in terms of green energy, Jeju began to plan a decade ago to become carbon neutral by 2030, and it tops the country in renewable energy use, driven by the nation's first offshore wind farm and ample solar capacity.
"Jeju's renewable energy generation rate and [electric vehicle] penetration rate are the highest in Korea," Won said. The island has more than 25,000 electric vehicles among a population of 670,000 residents.
It is on the roads where one of Jeju's most innovative smart initiatives can be seen. The Cooperative Intelligent Traffic System, which began as a $25 million pilot project that ran from 2018 to 2020, still is in operation.
The project covers some 186 miles of the island's roads with an array of CCTV cameras and sensors that communicate real-time data and artificial intelligence-powered predictive traffic and accident analysis to a NASA-like control center in Jeju City's municipal police bureau.
While many cities worldwide have intelligent traffic systems, Jeju's emphasizes the connectivity between vehicles, as well as the overall network, said Kang Su-cheon, head of the bureau's traffic information center.
"C-ITS is an upgraded version that enables two-way information between vehicles," Kang said. "Jeju is leading the way. It is the first place that established such services" in South Korea.
Related projects have since been launched in Seoul using public transportation and the industrial city of Ulsan using freight vehicles, but in Jeju -- a tourism-driven island -- the emphasis has been on rental cars.
Jeju received roughly 15 million visitors a year before the pandemic, and some 65% of tourists rent cars, Kang said.
Some 3,000 rental vehicles, roughly 10% of the island's inventory, have been equipped with on-board units that can receive information from the system, as well as communicate data such as location and speed to other vehicles.
The result is a kind of super-charged GPS, monitoring traffic and providing advance warning for hazards that range from a pedestrian stepping into the crosswalk to a vehicle stalled on the side of the road. Tourist information and local attractions also are highlighted on the dashboard-mounted device.
C-ITS has led to a 12% overall reduction in traffic accidents, with a decrease of 19% among vehicles equipped with the specialized on-board terminal, Kang said. Emergency vehicles also have seen improved response times, thanks to a prioritized traffic signal system.
The smart road infrastructure has made Jeju a center for autonomous vehicle testing, as well. Local startup RideFlux completed a trial run of self-driving shuttle service last year and is working on a larger-scale pilot project with car-sharing firm SoCar that is expected to launch in the coming months.
"Our big picture is to build an intelligent infrastructure that will provide an environment that is friendly for EVs or autonomous driving in the future," Won said. The integrated platform will potentially grow to include scooters, electric bicycles and even drones, he added.
Another area in which Jeju has been leading the nation is renewable energy. Sitting off of the west coast of the island is South Korea's first offshore wind farm, 10 turbines situated 1,640 to 3,937 feet from land.
"A few years ago, you couldn't see any offshore wind farms in Korea," said Woo Koang-ho, representative director of Tamra Offshore Wind Power, which operates the turbines. "But this plant was established in 2017 -- this was the starting point."
The wind farm is relatively modest in scope: Its turbines have a capacity of three megawatts each, for a total of 30 megawatts. However, they are part of a wind package on the island that includes an additional 172 on-shore towers, for a total capacity of 400 megawatts. Solar power contributes another 600 megawatts of capacity.
Overall, Jeju generates more than 16% of its energy from renewables, by far the highest rate in the country. South Korea's national rate is just around 2.4%, and as of 2018, it had the lowest share of renewable energy in total primary energy supply among the 30 member countries of the International Energy Agency.
In October, South Korea joined several other developed economies by pledging to slash its greenhouse gases and become carbon neutral by 2050, with offshore wind power as a major part of the plan.
Including the turbines on Jeju, South Korea only operates 30 offshore wind turbines, but the government announced a pair of ambitious projects earlier this year: a $43 billion offshore wind farm near Sinan on the southwestern coast and a $32 billion floating offshore wind farm -- projected to be the world's largest -- farther out at sea near the southeastern city of Ulsan.
The success of the Jeju wind farm has been essential to South Korea's bold designs, Woo said.
"We created a very good example because we are the first wind farm," he said.
Nearby villagers at first resisted the project, Woo said, expressing concerns about noise and the impact on local fishing. But they have since come to embrace the wind towers with a sense of local pride -- while also appreciating the income generated by a profit-sharing arrangement with the operator.
"Residents have, in fact, encouraged us to extend the tower farm, which we plan to do once we get permission," Woo said. Tamra is awaiting the regulatory go-ahead to install another 10 turbines, this time with a larger 8-megawatt capacity each.
Meanwhile, another pilot project on the island is producing and storing green hydrogen from the surplus electricity generated from wind power.
Woo said the wind farm has even helped to increase the area's tourist trade.
"We are 40 kilometers [25 miles] from Jeju City, and tourists didn't really visit before," Woo said. "But this wind farm has made the local economy more vibrant."
On a recent sunny afternoon, a steady stream of tourists stopped at various locations along the coast to snap photos and pose for selfies against a backdrop of white turbines, a choppy sea and a bright blue sky.
"The view is beautiful with the wind towers," said Lee Joo-hyun, who was visiting from Seoul. "Renewable energy is booming everywhere now, so I wanted to see this wind farm in person."
Tourism remains the lifeblood of Jeju, and the island is looking to lead the way yet again as a pilot travel bubble destination when the COVID-19 pandemic eases further, Won said.
Looking longer-term, officials are hoping that clean energy and smart city technology will become attractions in their own right and will enhance the overall tourism experience.
Won said the island is working on projects such as creating a points-based system to incentivize carbon-neutral actions by tourists and utilizing big data for customized travel recommendations and itineraries.
Most importantly, Jeju is looking to harness the power of technology to help maintain the island's natural beauty, the governor said.
"Sustainability, including people and nature, is the core value of Jeju's smart city vision," Won said.