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[News in focus] As heat rises, some call for power rate overhaul

Aug 01,2018
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As Koreans run their air conditioners and fend off the sweltering heat, the country’s electricity pricing system is facing public demands for change.

“I am dreading to see the utility bill for July, given how much electricity we had to use,” said Kim Ji-hoon, a resident of Suseo-dong in southern Seoul. “I wish the government would give us some break considering how hot the weather has been.”

Kim isn’t the only one worried about electricity bills, as temperatures - and air-conditioner use - have shot up rapidly over the past few weeks.

The temperature in Seoul reached 38.3 degrees Celsius (100.94 degrees Fahrenheit) yesterday and is expected to reach 39 degrees Celsius, a high for the year, today.

As of Tuesday, the Blue House website received over 400 petitions for a government overhaul of the system.

Some of them are asking that the government reduce the price of electricity just for July and August, the hottest months of the year. The electricity pricing system in Korea charges at three different rates depending on the amount of power consumed.

Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco), state-run utility company, charges 910 won ($0.81) as a basic flat fee and 93.3 won for every kilowatt hour (kWh) used by households that consumed less than 200 kWh a month. The rate per kWh nearly doubles to 187.9 won per kWh from 201 to 400 kWhs. A household that consumes over 400 kWh a month must pay 7,300 won as their fee and 208.6 won for each kWh over 400.

Kepco claims the system reduces the burden on low-income households, who tend to use less electricity than high-income families. But a recent study done by the National Assembly showed that the average electricity rates paid by the families in the first quintile, or the bottom 20 percent, was in fact higher, at 54,339 won on average, than those in the second and third quintile, who paid 45,804 won and 46,592 won on average.

Concerns over heavy energy bills didn’t stop Koreans away from turning on their air conditioners, as shown by the rising number of power outages across the country. On Monday evening, an apartment complex in Hwasun County, South Jeolla, had no power for nearly four hours after its circuit breaker caught on fire.

Another apartment complex in Goyang, Gyeonggi, also experienced a blackout for over two hours on Monday for a similar reason. Officials from Kepco explained that the recent blackouts happened due to electrical devices that were unable to manage the power demand. The public outcry has brought the issue to the attention of top government officials.

Lee Nak-yon, Korea’s prime minister, said in a cabinet meeting on Tuesday that the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy should review the possibility of providing “special consideration” for public energy prices.

Lee’s request raised hopes that the Energy Ministry may consider responding to the public’s request. Just a day earlier, the ministry maintained that it is unlikely to change the electricity pricing system any time soon.

“The ministry is comprehensively reviewing the system from different angles,” said Park Sung-taek, the director general for energy industry policy at the Energy Ministry, on Monday, adding that it may be premature to change the system, which was overhauled just two years ago.


BY CHOI HYUNG-JO [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]