1 Introduction

Energy transition to deal with the climate crisis has now become a task of the times for all countries in the world. The Moon Jae-in government is the first government in Korean history to formalize the ‘energy transition’ as a national task. The abolition of the construction of a new nuclear power plant, on-time closure of Kori Unit 1, the first reactor of South Korea, without lifetime extension, the early closure of Wolsong Unit 1, and closure of aging coal-fired power plants were representative promises of Moon Jae-in at the time of the presidential election (Yun, 2018).

In spite of the presidential pledge of no more construction of new nuclear power plants, the construction of Shin-Kori Units 5 and 6 was decided through public debate after inauguration of the Moon government. Anti-nuclear activist groups opposed the public debate on whether to continue construction of Shin-Kori Units 5 and 6, but stopping the reactor construction with an approximate 30% completion rate was too politically burdensome to the Moon government. In the end, the construction was resumed based on the decision of the people’s participation group designed and operated by the public opinion committee for Shin-Kori Units 5 and 6. Right after this event, the Moon government declared a roadmap for nuclear phase-out in Oct. 2020.

The Moon government went beyond simple slogans to implement energy transition in more detail. The Renewable Energy 3020 Implementation Plan was announced in Dec. 2017 to expand renewable energy to 20% of electricity generation by 2030. This target was almost doubled compared with the previous target of 11% by 2030. As of 2020, the Moon government declared the Green New Deal (hereafter GND) as a part of the Korean version of the Green Deal, and promoted energy transition as a core of the GND toward changes for a sustainable society by simultaneously overcoming the economic, climate, and social inequality crises.

Although the current Moon government has struggled with the expansion of renewable energy, the share of renewable energy in South Korea is still lowest among OECD member countries. In the large-scale centralized conventional energy system, the conflict over the location of energy-related facilities was limited to a small number of regions, while conflicts surrounding locating renewable energy facilities were rather nationalized due to the property of decentralized energy. Even though renewable energy is relatively more environmentally-friendly, conflicts over renewable energy have reached a point where they can no longer be ignored. The decentralized energy system was expected to be more democratic through the participation of local residents by following the way local residents determine by themselves how to use energy on their own. However, in South Korea, the phenomenon of Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) targeting coal and nuclear facilities is also prominent in the case of renewable energy.

This study aims to explore the current status of energy transition in South Korea from the perspective of energy democracy. First, it deals with the evaluation of civil society on the Moon Jae-in government’s renewable energy policy. Then, the concept of energy democracy is discussed. South Korea’s energy transition policy is examined and social conflicts over renewable energy are explored. South Korea’s renewable energy conflicts have been deepened because of fake news by the media. Thus, this study examines news about renewable energy and analyzes renewable energy discourses shaped by the media. And then, regulation of local governments is explored as a representative barrier blocking expansion of PVs. Fake news stimulates oppositions to locating renewable energy facilities or justifies such oppositions.

2 Moon Government’s Renewable Energy Policy and Evaluation of Civil Society

For the first time in Korean history, the Moon government has made energy transition a national agenda. After taking office in May 2017, the Moon government announced the Renewable Energy 3020 Implementation Plan in Dec., and has continued to promote the energy transition policy to increase the share of renewable electricity to 20% by 2030. The goal is to secure 28.8 GW of large-scale projects, to supply 10.0 GW of solar power for farms, 7.5 GW for small businesses such as cooperatives, and 2.4 GW for individuals such as houses and buildings by 2030. And on October 28, 2020, President Moon Jae-in declared “2050 carbon neutral” in his administration address. Then, in early December, the 2050 Carbon Neutral Promotion Strategy was presented, and at the end of December, the 2050 Long-term Low Greenhouse Gas Emissions Development Strategy (LEDS) was submitted to the UN Climate Change Convention Secretariat. In order to reduce the energy sector, which accounts for about 86.9% of total greenhouse gas emissions as of 2018, reduction of the proportion of fossil fuels and expansion of renewable energy were suggested as key measures to respond to the climate crisis (Greenhouse Gas Inventory and Research Center, 2020).

The Moon government rapidly expanded renewable energy facilities through large-scale projects and public participatory power generation projects. In particular, policies focused on large-scale projects were implemented (Lee, Kim, et al., 2020). In terms of installed capacity, solar power plants in Korea increased more than 5 times from 4502 MW in 2016 to 21,308 MW in 2020, and wind power plants also nearly doubled from about 1035 MW in 2016 to 2072 M in 2020. In the first half of 2020, the share of renewable energy generation in Korea was 6.5%, an increase from 3.9% in 2018, but it is still the lowest among OECD countries. The Moon government introduced a conflict management mechanism from 2019 to improve problems through communication with residents as civil complaints and local conflicts arose in the process of expanding renewable energy. In the expansion of renewable energy, policies are being supplemented and improved in the direction of sharing profits and strengthening communication between project operators and residents, away from the one-sided development method.

Civil society points out that although the Moon government’s renewable energy policy has made progress compared to the past, there are still problems to be solved (Korea Federation for Environmental Movements, 2021). On August 24, 2021, the Korea Federation for Environmental Movement and the Green Energy Strategy Institute held a debate forum to evaluate the Moon government’s renewable energy policy. The presenters and panelists evaluated that the Moon government has strengthened the renewable energy supply target compared to the past, but the current renewable energy supply target is insufficient to achieve the 2050 carbon neutrality target. As obstacles to the process of expanding the supply of renewable energy, problems such as residents’ acceptability, environmental impact, location regulation, and electricity market system remain, and they agreed that system improvement is necessary to solve these problems. In order to achieve the carbon-neutral goal, about 460–510 GW of renewable energy must be accumulated by 2050, and at least 11–12 GW of solar power and 4–5 GW of wind power should be supplied annually. The Moon government was criticized for being insufficient in terms of the separation distance regulation of solar power and insufficient environmental impact assessment system for onshore and offshore wind power. Also, there was a problem raised that the targets for the energy self-sufficiency rate and the proportion of renewable energy generation in metropolitan cities were insufficient. In terms of democracy and publicity, civil society actors emphasized the need for resident participation in the site selection and profit-sharing design process, and support for small-scale community energy, including cooperatives.

3 Energy Transition, Energy Democracy and Media Coverage

Energy constitutes a socio-technical system in which not only technological elements, but also the social structures, institutions, and social relations surrounding it are intricately connected (Yun et al., 2011). Transition is a change from one socio-technical system to another through the co-evolution of actors and technologies based on social learning and innovation (Yun & Sim, 2015). Energy transition in the era of climate change means securing the sustainability of the energy system by converting the existing large-scale centralized energy system to a small-scale distributed energy system through energy saving, efficiency improvement, and expansion of renewable energy (Yun, 2008). The key to sustainable energy transition is the expansion of renewable energy, and the socio-technical system of renewable energy is composed of technologies, organizations, institutional structures, finance, and political systems interacting with each other (Markard, 2018).

As this energy transition is based on regionally distributed renewable energy sources, it implies the possibility of a transition from a centralized decision-making method to a more democratic method in which local residents participate to make decisions and also participate in the construction, maintenance, and operation of energy facilities. According to Gunderson and Yun (2021), “the organizing aims of the energy democracy movement are to destabilize, resist, and move beyond conventional energy systems and transition to renewable and just systems democratically controlled by informed citizens who control and own the means of energy production.” The issues are, to what extent are local residents of renewable energy sites informed and interested in democratic ownership and control of the means of energy production, and what is the extent of their awareness and acceptance of renewable energy. Social acceptance of renewable energy is divided into three dimensions: sociopolitical acceptance, market acceptance, and local community acceptance (REN21, 2020). Although sociopolitical acceptability is high, community acceptability is low, so unlike theoretical possibilities, the realization of energy democracy shows an unfavorable trend. In South Korea, it was found that local residents’ acceptance of renewable energy installations was lower than that of the general public (Lee, Huh, et al., 2020). As a result of the 2018 survey, residents in areas where renewable energy systems were built or scheduled to be built had low satisfaction with the renewable energy project, and residents in areas near the power plant were equally satisfied and dissatisfied with the construction of renewable energy power plants for reasons of landscape, ecosystem, and environment (Chung & Lee, 2018). On the other hand, in the National Environmental Awareness Survey, air quality improvement (46.5%) is the most urgent environmental problem that citizens think needs to be resolved, and climate change damage and response (21.9%) rank second (Jeon et al., 2020). This means that the general acceptance of the whole society for the expansion of renewable energy is high. It can be seen that the negative attitude toward the installation of renewable energy facilities near one’s house is strong, and the responsibility as an energy citizen for the overall situation of society increases. This low community acceptance manifests the NIMBY phenomenon, leading to conflicts and regulatory disputes over renewable energy, which will be discussed in this article.

Media coverage plays a certain role in this value conflict situation. Discourse analysis of energy transition in terms of the knowledge co-production process in science and policy, influence of human factors, and ecological democracy has been conducted (Komendantova & Neumueller, 2020). According to the discourse approach, energy transitions are socially constructed at specific times and places and can be interpreted through media coverage analysis (Antal & Rhunmaa, 2018). Media coverage can disseminate or conceal information about the energy transition, motivate or hinder the selection of new energy technologies, and play an important role in the energy transition, influencing citizens and policies (Lyytimäki et al., 2018).

The media selectively reports various social phenomena, reporting certain phenomena or events and no other phenomena or events. In this process, phenomena or events that should be socially circulated and communicated are sometimes excluded and not revealed. In addition, framing is performed on the phenomenon or event to be reported. The framework of “framing” is a mental structure that forms a way of looking at the world, and determines the goals and plans pursued, the way of acting, and the good or bad of actions (Lakkoff, 2004). Through that framework, problems are identified and defined, and methods or strategies to solve the problems are clearly established (Pidgeona et al., 2008; Poortinga et al., 2006). Frameworks are the basis for organizing fragments of the everyday world with the organizing principles that govern events and our subjective engagement with them. The process of creating such a framework can be called framing (Kim & Yun, 2010), and it is the task of organizing, classifying, and interpreting an experience on a daily basis in order to understand it (Choi, 2009). Framing implies the creation of an epistemological perspective, worldview, or implicit assumption that allows for a common interpretation and definition of a particular issue (Miller, 2000).

According to the framing theory, people follow the way information is presented unless they have a strong prior opinion (Lee, 2003). As a result, if there is a slight change in the way risk is expressed or if the risk is structured in a framework different from that which has been understood, risk perception and decisions are significantly affected. As new information is input, belief systems and knowledge structures change, and judgment and reasoning change accordingly. That is, when new information is added, some or all of the knowledge representation structure (belief) is appropriately changed and reconstructed (Lee, 2003). You can try to change the way people see the world by changing or reconfiguring the framing, and this attempt is made with the effect of framing in mind. Therefore, it can be said that media reports have a significant impact on the shaping of ordinary citizens.

4 Renewable Energy Discourse and the Politicization of the Media

4.1 Renewable Energy-Related Media Reports

The media plays a role in publicizing socially important environmental issues. It influences citizens’ policy understanding and social acceptance by mediating experts, policymakers, and citizens. Media have different tones depending on their political ideology. Not all events and phenomena are written in articles, and selection and exclusion are made by reporters and newsdesks. News articles are structured through frames, defining problems, offering solutions, and shaping public opinion. Journalists need to present data-based scientific evidence on controversial issues and to communicate objective facts in plain language that ordinary citizens can understand. However, depending on the tendencies of the media, there are cases in which incorrect or exaggerated information is reported as true as the issue of renewable energy is interpreted based on a specific position. Considering the political characteristics of the media, the obstacles to energy transition can be identified by examining the media reports on renewable energy in South Korea.

As a result of the Media Users in South Korea 2020, the news usage rate of citizens was 85.0% for TV, 78.7% for the Internet, and 10.2% for newspapers (Korea Press Foundation, 2020). The results of the 2019 National Environmental Awareness Survey are similar, with the main media through which citizens access environmental information being Internet portal sites (51.5%) and TV (35.1%), and newspapers account for only 2.4% (Jeon et al., 2020). Articles related to renewable energy were analyzed on the BIG Kinds website, which provides big data services by integrating the article DBs of central, economic, regional, broadcasting, and specialized magazines that can be accessed through Internet portal sites. For the period from January 1, 2016 to May 31, 2021, we searched news containing at least one word from among renewable energy/solar power/wind power for 54 media companies. As a result of the search, a total of 14,742 articles were found, and the number of articles per month is shown in (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Renewable energy media reporting trends

It can be seen that related articles have increased rapidly since President Moon Jae-in took office in May 2017. Since the beginning of his inauguration, the Moon Jae-in administration has been promoting a policy of expanding renewable energy by setting nuclear phase-out as a top priority. In the first half of 2020, as the COVID-19 epidemic began, the proportion of articles related to COVID-19 increased, and articles related to renewable energy decreased relatively. The reason why the article in August 2020 is about double that of other periods is because there were many articles mentioning concerns about damage to solar panels and wind turbines under the influence of powerful Cyclone Bobby. As the cyclone moved differently from the expected route, the impact of the cyclone was not greater than expected, so there were few articles reporting the damage to renewable energy facilities.

According to the results of a study analyzing articles related to rural solar power in the Korean media from 2010 to 2019, out of 1067 articles, there were 334 positive articles and 148 negative articles, indicating that negative discourses about solar power accounted for a considerable proportion (Ki & Ahn, 2020). In articles that positively describe solar power, the main topics are government support and farmhouse profit, policy briefing sessions, plan for renewable energy expansion, National Agricultural Cooperatives Federation, electricity generation by resident participation, information on participation policy, participation in cooperatives, cases of rural solar power projects, agrophotovoltaic demonstration on projects, etc. Articles that wrote negatively about solar power dealt with impacts by panel installation, development by outsiders, residents’ opposition, problems of government support, damage of farmland and forest, damage to agriculture, farmland encroachment, separation distance, grid connection, etc. as main topics. While positive articles tend to mainly introduce government policies and their effects from the perspective of resident participation and profit creation, negative articles cover various problems in the process of expanding solar power, environmental damage, and difficulties experienced by solar power operators. Regarding the renewable energy expansion policy, the Moon Jae-in government has been implementing the farmhouse solar power project since 2017 to support residents to install solar power.

4.2 Characteristics of Renewable Energy Articles in Conservative and Progressive Media

To examine the framing difference between the conservative and progressive media, BIG Kinds’ TopicRank algorithm service was used. The TopicRank algorithm ranks the words appearing in the article in such a way that a higher weight is given to the words whose distance is closer to those words within the vicinity of the search keyword. News containing at least one word from renewable energy/solar power/wind power from January 1, 2018 to May 31, 2021 for the Chosunilbo and Korea JoongAng Daily as representative conservative media in South Korea, and the Kyunghyang Shinmun and the Hankyoreh as progressive media was searched on BIG Kinds.Footnote 1 The number of articles was 532 in the Chosunilbo, 479 in the Korea JoongAng Daily, 247 in the Hankyoreh, and 352 in the Kyunghyang Shinmun.

Renewable energy is commonly used as an alternative to nuclear energy. If you look at the articles, there are many articles in the conservative media criticizing the current government’s nuclear phase-out policy while pointing out the limitations of renewable energy (Table.1). Progressive media have tended to move away from fossil-fuel or nuclear-centric regimes and treat renewable energy as a major means of energy transition. And the distinct difference between the conservative and progressive media is that in the former case, the possibility of landslides increases due to solar power, and articles that state landslides lead to damage to solar power facilities are reported as important. In the case of the Kyunghyang Shinmun, the economic benefit framing that jobs are created through renewable energy is characteristic. On the other hand, the reason ‘safeguard’ and ‘washing machine’ rank high is because there are many articles that appear alongside solar power as a product of emergency import restriction measures (safeguards) in the United States.

Table 1 Topic rank of articles on renewable energy in conservative and progressive media

Searching for energy transition as a keyword for the same period resulted in 184 in the Chosunilbo, 291 in the Korea JoongAng Daily, 214 in the Hankyoreh, and 228 in the Kyunghyang Shinmun. Compared to the number of articles when searching for renewable energy/solar power/wind power, it can be seen that the energy transition is relatively more important in the progressive media than in the conservative media. As a result of applying the TopicRank algorithm of BIG Kinds, the first and second place words with high weight because they are located close to the energy transition in the article were nuclear phase-out and new and renewable in the Chosunilbo, new and renewable and nuclear phase-out in the Korea JoongAng Daily, climate crisis and nuclear phase-out in the Hankyoreh, and solar power and greenhouse gas in the Kyunghyang Shinmun. Each media has a different direction in which they want to communicate to citizens through articles in connection with energy transition. The Chosunilbo delivers critiques of nuclear phase-out and the limitations of renewable energy, and the Korea JoongAng Daily conveys the pros and cons of new and renewable energy and the problems of nuclear phase-out. The Hankyoreh delivers nuclear phase-out as a strategy to overcome the climate crisis, and the Kyunghyang Shinmun presents a discourse on expanding solar power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Since citizens have the highest rate of use of television when accessing news, from January 1, 2018 to May 31, 2021, for KBS, MBC, YTN, and SBS broadcasters, 590 news items including one or more words of renewable energy/solar power/wind power were analyzed using the TopicRank algorithm service of BIG Kinds. The word rankings were landslide, ESS, residents, fire, property damage, renewable energy, casualties, power plant, fire department, and Jeju. In the case of television media, the frequency of reporting on renewable energy in connection with disasters was higher than that of newspaper articles. Television’s approach could have an impact on citizens’ negative perceptions of renewable energy. On the other hand, the progressive media, Kyunghyang Shinmun, presented an analysis based on data through an article titled <“[Fact Check] Expert opinion on the ‘Relationship of heavy rain damage’ of the four rivers VS solar power”>. A total of 1079 landslides occurred in South Korea during the rainy season in 2020, 12 of which occurred at solar power facilities, accounting for 1.1%, and compared to the 12,721 mountain solar power generation facilities installed nationwide, the rate of landslides at solar power facilities was less than 0.1% (Kyunghyang Shinmun, 2020). And Yonhap News, which can be seen as a moderate media, explained through various data that there is no statistical basis for the claim that solar power facilities in mountainous areas are the main culprit of the increase in landslides (Yonhap News, 2020a).

4.3 Conservative Media’s Distortion of Articles and Criticism of Nuclear Phase-Out

Conservative media selects and publishes articles that may cause citizens to have negative perceptions about energy transition, while progressive media supports energy transition and emphasizes content that can form a positive attitude. According to the research results of the analysis of the Chosunilbo and the Hankyoreh’s report on nuclear phase-out, the Chosun Ilbo produces a discourse that the nuclear phase-out policy destroys the industrial and economic base, threatens the operation of nuclear power plants, wastes taxes, and destroys the environment, and the Hankyoreh showed a tendency to form a discourse that nuclear power is not safe and that nuclear phase-out policies will revitalize the industrial and economic foundations (Kang, 2020).

The two newspapers also differ in the way they introduce the contents of nuclear phase-out and energy transition in other countries. For example, the Chosunilbo and the Korea Economic Daily wrote articles on the report by Der Spiegel magazine, framed by Germany regretting the phase out of nuclear power. In an article titled <“Nuclear phase-out costing 200 trillion won, an expensive failure, Germany’s regrets.”>, <“Nuclear phase-out is an expensive failure” … “Voices of Criticism from Germany”>, they listed the problems of the energy transition projects, indirectly criticized the Korean government’s nuclear phase-out policy, and suggested that the nuclear phase-out should be stopped (Chosunilbo, 2019b; Korea Economic Daily, 2019). The Chosunilbo tried to form a negative public opinion on the energy transition by writing two related articles, one editorial, and one column. In response, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy distributed a media release stating that the core of Der Spiegel’s report was criticizing the fact that Germany’s nuclear phase-out and energy transition policy is the largest project since unification, which must be achieved, but it is not being implemented properly (Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, 2019). In addition, the Hankyoreh, a progressive media, criticized the Chosunilbo report for being trapped in the debate about the pros and cons of nuclear power generation, and emphasized that the central point was that the government should actively promote energy transition in all sectors, citing Der Spiegel’s report (Hankyoreh, 2019).

Another example that focuses on framing the pros and cons of the energy transition is the controversy surrounding the Seoul Economic Daily’s interview with three German energy experts. An issue was raised about the article of Seoul Economic Daily, <[Energy mix, learn from overseas] “Excessive subsidies for renewable energy are ‘inefficient’… We should not completely rule out nuclear power”> (Seoul Economic Daily, 2019). It is said that the context of the remarks of the Wuppertal Institute’s vice president Fischedick, one of the energy experts, was distorted or omitted, highlighting only the inefficiency and cost burden of renewable energy subsidies (Citizens’ Coalition for the Democratic Media, 2019). As a result of hearing the explanation from vice president Fischedick after the report, it was confirmed that the article was not balanced and he emphasized the socio-economic benefits of energy transition and the possibility of energy transition in South Korea, but such parts were excluded in the process of summarizing the interview (Citizens’ Coalition for Democratic Media, 2019). On the other hand, prior to these debates, the Kyunghyang Shinmun published a series of articles on [Energy Transition, Necessary, Not Optional], detailing the success stories of wind power in Feldheim, Germany and solar power in Gelsenkirchen, and as part of the series, talks by vice president Fischedick were reported and in that article, the necessary parts for energy transition, such as the importance of changing citizens’ perceptions, creation of jobs in renewable energy, the necessity of government policy decisions, the risk of nuclear accidents, and citizen participation in renewable energy projects were highlighted (Kyunghyang Shinmun, 2018).

In addition, the Chosunilbo published an editorial in support of the opposition leader’s remark that the policy to phase out nuclear power plants is a major cause of new construction of fossil fuel plants and fine dust. In response to this claim, media such as Yonhap News and KBS reported a fact-check article that, based on statistical data and expert opinions, fine dust is greatly influenced by foreign and seasonal factors, and that the rate of increase in bituminous coal power generation has decreased significantly due to the nuclear phase-out policy (KBS, 2019; Yonhap News, 2019). Subsequently, the Chosunilbo published an article stating that ultrafine dust, greenhouse gas, and social costs will surge in 2029 as the amount of LNG (liquefied natural gas) power generation increases instead of nuclear power plants that do not emit fine dust and greenhouse gases (Chosunilbo, 2019a). In the article, the Chosunilbo specified the source of the information as the National Assembly Legislative Investigation Agency. However, according to the response report by said agency, fine dust increases due to the increase in LNG supply and demand in the new plan compared to the existing LNG plan, but overall fine dust decreases because LNG replaces coal-fired power (Media Today, 2019). It can be confirmed that the Chosunilbo intentionally distorted the information to reinforce the framing that nuclear phase-out leads to an increase in fine dust.

Fake news related to the Moon Jae-in government’s nuclear phase-out policy is mainly produced by conservative newspapers based on its firm belief in the nuclear-based energy system, and it can be said that fake news is used for the purpose of criticizing the current ideologically different government. The discourse on energy transition in South Korea is highly politicized. The Chosun Ilbo reinforces its anti-communist ideology by defining nuclear denuclearization as an ideological movement of the left based on irrational superstition, while the Hankyoreh presented a discourse that the public debate committee for Shin-Kori Units 5 and 6 that decides the policy direction for the reduction of nuclear power should be respected as the will of the people, and that the nuclear phase-out will succeed the candlelight revolution that judged the established powers (Kang, 2020).

According to the result of the Media Users in Korea 2020, conservative or progressive citizens tend to give positive reviews to the media because they tend to look for media that match their political orientation, and those with neutral political orientation tend to withhold positive reviews (Korea Press Foundation, 2020). In other words, it can have the effect that conservative citizens read the reports of the conservative media and reinforce negative perceptions about the energy transition, and progressive citizens think more positively about the energy transition through articles in the progressive media. In energy democracy, it is important to provide an opportunity to reflect on issues based on sufficient information. The stronger the political belief, the greater the confirmation bias, and the media reports will inevitably fail to fulfill the role of the public sphere. Media reports that verify and describe renewable energy issues through scientific data should be established as a practice, and a mature civic awareness to trust and look for these media reports is required.

4.4 Conflicts Related to Solar and Wind Power and the Role of the Media

According to the results of a study on media reports that investigated solar power, civil complaints, and conflict as keywords from 2006 to 2018, as the supply of solar power facilities increased after 2014, the number of conflict-related articles also increased (Park et al., 2019). In 91 related articles, the reasons for opposing solar power are reckless development 21 times, landscape damage 19 times, forest damage 15 times, environmental damage 14 times, electromagnetic waves 13 times, ignoring residents’ opinions 12 times, speculation 11 times, light reflection 11 times, crop damage 11 times, livestock 9 times, soil spills and landslides 9 times, temperature rise 9 times, land price drop (property infringement) 8 times, outsiders taking profits 6 times, permission process conflicts 6 times, etc. (Park et al., 2019). Many articles reporting residents’ objection to the solar power project include the voices of local residents who are concerned about environmental damage, but they do not include information on whether renewable energy facilities actually cause damage to the surrounding area and how to prevent damage. The principle of neutral reporting, which delivers information in a balanced way, tends to be overlooked.

For energy transition, citizens need to take responsibility for energy issues and consider alternatives based on balanced information. The media that provides biased or distorted information to spread discourse against the energy transition is a social problem. In some media reports, articles that correct misinformation circulating in society are reported. For example, Aju Business Daily’s article titled <“Renewable energy expansion policy needs to be applied flexibly… Incorrect facts about ‘solar power’ must be corrected”> creates a highly readable image explaining that there are no problems related to water pollution, landscape damage, electromagnetic waves, glare, and radiant heat (Aju Business Daily, 2018). Today Energy’s article titled < “[New Year Feature] Misconceptions and Truths about Solar Energy”> is based on data from the Korea Environmental Institute, National Radio Research Agency, Korea Energy Technology Evaluation and Planning, Korea Testing and Research Institute, and Solar Power Industry Association, and fact-checking in detail is conducted (Today Energy, 2019a). However, since these fact-check articles account for only a small proportion of all renewable energy-related articles, it is difficult for citizens to deliberate energy issues.

As for wind power, there are fewer articles that verify the authenticity of such issues through data compared to articles that convey complaints and criticisms from residents, such as media reports about solar power. For example, the Maeil Business News Korea’s article titled <“It is certain that the fishing industry will be ruined…” Fishermen are angry at the ruling party’s push for a wind power generation permit> only emphasized the negative stance on the bill exempting and simplifying the environmental evaluation of offshore wind power projects promoted by the ruling party. The article introduces the opinions of fishermen and fishermen who oppose deregulation because wind power is likely to have a negative impact on marine ecosystems (Maeil Business News Korea, 2021). An article highlighting the opposition voices of the fishery industry may create a negative perception of wind power among citizens. In addition, the Korean Economy’s article of <“A ‘hate tax’ should be imposed on wind power generation facilities”> defined solar and wind power generation facilities as hate facilities, and cited the report by the Korea Institute of Local Finance as a basis for that. In the actual report, the expression of hate facilities or hate tax did not appear, and research results were presented such that a local resource facility tax for wind power was required, and solar power was not a subject of study (Newstop, 2021). By changing the nuance while delivering professional information, a framework in which renewable energy facilities are hated is created.

The Korea JoongAng Daily wrote fact-check articles on wind power through the series <[Clean Energy Paradox, Solve with Facts]>. The results of the Korea Transportation University’s domestic wind power generation complex noise impact study were introduced in the article. The six wind farms in Jeollanam-do and Jeju exceeded the frequency-specific standards in 5 out of 6 locations based on a separation distance of 250 m and 2 out of 4 locations based on a distance of 1 km, and 7 out of 15 private houses within 1 km of the power plant complex (Korea JoongAng Daily, 2020a). It can be seen that the serial articles were intended to provide balanced and professional information. According to the report by the Legislative Research Institute included in the article, vibrations and floating debris during offshore wind power construction may have some influence, but it is difficult to state that it has a serious impact on the entire marine ecosystem. The article included comments from an expert that new fishing could be formed in offshore wind farms, and the contents of an article from the Korean Society for Noise and Vibration Engineering that offshore wind power produces less noise than onshore wind power (Korea JoongAng Daily, 2020b). In addition, an alternative to energy democracy was suggested through an article covering a case of profit sharing with high satisfaction among residents by subsidizing electricity bills with profits from the operation of the Gasiri wind power plant on Jeju Island, and using the site rent for scholarships and welfare funds for the elderly (Korea JoongAng Daily, 2020c). The JoongAng Ilbo, despite being a conservative newspaper, strongly criticized the current government’s nuclear phase-out policy, emphasizing the necessity of maintaining nuclear power, and at the same time provided balanced information on the strengths and weaknesses of renewable energy. Progressive media tend to report mainly on the positive aspects of renewable energy, but the Korea JoongAng Daily’s fact-checking approach contributes to energy democracy in terms of providing information from various perspectives.

It acts as an obstacle to energy democracy by playing the role of representing the position of the existing energy system while highlighting only the conflicts in the energy transition process in the media. Currently, the biggest obstacle to the expansion of renewable energy in Korean society is the debate over separation distance regulations. From January 1, 2016 to May 31, 2021, 152 articles were searched for articles including separation distance and at least one of renewable energy/solar power/wind power. The word ranking according to the TopicRank algorithm provided by BIG Kinds was in the order of renewable energy, local government, residents, Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, residential area, local government, ordinance revision, restart, ESS, and firewall installation. ESS, firewall, and separation distance are words that appear in articles related to solar or wind energy storage devices and are distinguished from other articles. A number of articles contained contents that local governments enacted separation distance regulation ordinances due to resident complaints or residents’ opposition to the separation distance relaxation ordinance, in contrast to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy’s abolition of separation distance regulations for solar facilities. Because of concerns about safety, there are many cases where residents feel reluctant to install solar power facilities near roads and residential areas and file complaints.

5 Energy Complaint and Separation Distance Regulation

5.1 Current Status and Problems of Separation Distance Regulation

In the Renewable Energy 3020 Implementation Plan, out of the 63.8 GW capacity of newly expanded facilities, which aims to supply 20% of power generation with renewable energy by 2030, 36.5 GW (57%) will be solar power. Of this, 17.5 GW, which is half the amount, is from small businesses such as farms and cooperatives, so the acceptance of local residents will be the most important key. However, as the number of local governments that place separation distance clauses on solar power installations is gradually increasing according to resident complaints, it is acting as a major obstacle to the expansion of small and medium-sized solar power generation. This is because residents feel reluctance to install solar power generation facilities near roads and residential areas for safety reasons and file complaints. As of October 2020, the number of local governments that introduced solar power separation distance regulations as an ordinance increased from 8 to 128 compared to 2016, which is 57% of the total 226 local governments nationwide (Yonhap News, 2020b).

The ordinance stipulates that photovoltaic power generation facilities should be installed at a distance of at least 50 m to 1 km (average 331 m) for roads and 50 to 600 m (average 332 m) for residential facilities. Small and medium-sized solar power projects under 1 MW are most affected by these regulations, accounting for 81% of the total solar power supply capacity. According to Hanwha Q Cells, a solar power manufacturer, the number of inquiries about installing a 1 MW or less solar power plant has significantly decreased due to the separation distance issue (Bae, 2020). In South Korea, rents are high due to the high land prices, so it is difficult for energy cooperatives as well as business operators to find a site to build a small-scale solar power plant. To solve this problem, the government introduced the Small Solar Power Fixed Price Contract System (Korean-style FIT) to purchase electricity from photovoltaic power generation companies with less than 30 kW, farmer/livestock raiser/fishermen and cooperatives with less than 100 kW, at a fixed price for 20 years. It compensates for some of the losses. On the one hand, the government is supporting the activation of small and medium-sized solar power, but on the other hand, local governments are putting the brakes on the ordinance.

The reason why the separation distance regulation is particularly problematic is that each local government has different standards, which aggravates the difficulties of operators. The type of regulation by local government has a wide variation, ranging from 100 m at the shortest to 500 m at the maximum, and is set based on roads or residential areas. In fact, even though it is a suitable location for solar power generation, there are increasing cases of difficulties in development because it does not meet the separation distance standard. Reflecting this situation, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy prepared the Guidelines for Location of Solar Power Generation Facilities in 2017 and presented the basic principle of “The head of a local government does not set and operate separation distance standards for solar power facilities.” In the case of densely populated residential areas where more than 10 households live and there are other facilities such as roads and cultural assets, there is an exception that allows a maximum separation distance of 100 m. However, since the guidelines of the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy are simple recommendations, they are not legally binding. In 2018, after the guidelines were announced, 68 local governments introduced regulations, the highest number ever. In addition to this, the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy introduced a standard for giving points according to the degree of separation distance regulation in the evaluation of local governments to select targets for solar power generation projects from 2018 to 2019. In the case of the convergence support project, if the separation distance exceeds 200 m, a maximum of 3 points will be deducted. Considering that the average separation distance from roads in 128 local governments is 331 m and the average separation distance from residential areas is 332 m, most of them will receive a three-point deduction (Yonhap News, 2020b).

There are also frequent legal disputes between local governments and solar power companies over the separation distance regulation ordinance. In 2016, photovoltaic companies in Cheongsong, North Gyeongsang Province, filed a lawsuit when Cheongsong county office rejected the application for permission for a development activity for photovoltaic construction. In 2017, the Daegu District Court ruled in favor of the solar power company as illegal because the ordinance set excessive separation distance restrictions (Road 1000 m, residential and tourist attractions, etc. 500 m). However, in October 2019, the Supreme Court reversed and returned the lower court, saying, “As long as the legitimacy and necessity of regulating the separation distance of solar power generation facilities in Cheongsong county is recognized, it cannot be considered to be contrary to the purpose of the entrustment of the Act or contrary to equity.” The Supreme Court held that the level of the restriction was not excessive and was within the discretion of the local government to form an ordinance that could be set autonomously according to local conditions. On the other hand, the city of Yeosu, South Jeolla Province, allowed the development of a 1800 m2 solar power generation project on a site 200 m away even though the distance between houses was set at 300 m. As a result, the residents have filed an administrative appeal and are in dispute. As such, it can be seen that conflicts are intensifying amid conflicting views and interpretations of ordinances related to separation distance restrictions between local governments, power generation companies, and local residents related to renewable energy separation distances, increasing the possibility of serious social waste (Kim, 2020).

5.2 Reasons for Introducing Separation Distance by Local Governments

According to the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy, complaints from local residents are caused by concerns about light reflection from solar power generation facilities, increase in ambient temperature, and electromagnetic waves, but it was confirmed that there were no problems as a result of technical verification. In addition, there have been many cases where residents in the vicinity felt rejected and filed complaints due to problems in aesthetics and scenery when installing solar power (Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, 2017). In the past 5 years, a total of 2118 complaints related to renewable energy were received from 17 cities and provinces.

Complaints about noise, low frequency, and violation of the right to sunlight and views from renewable energy facilities accounted for the largest number with 1265 cases (35.3% of the total), followed by forest damage and environmental destruction with 844 cases (23.6%), land price drop and crop damage with 652 cases (18.2%), flood and soil leakage with 508 cases (14.2%) and preservation of cultural properties 314 cases (8.7%) (Chosunilbo, 2020). In the past 5 years, there were 498 solar and wind power complaints, accounting for 24% of the total complaints, 414 solar power and 84 wind power complaints, most of which were related to solar power. Regarding complaints, environmental destruction such as forest damage (271 cases) accounted for the highest proportion, followed by violations of the right to life and health (131 cases), land price decline and crop damage (84 cases), and concerns about disasters such as floods and soil leakage (53 cases), and other (63 cases) such as requests for preservation and compensation of cultural properties (Kwangjuilbo, 2021).

According to the results of a survey conducted for 82 local governments through a request for information disclosure on the reasons for setting separation distance regulations on the agenda, they were the prevention of reckless development and landscape damage (75, 91%), civil complaints (33, 40%), damage to mountains (16, 20%), land price increase and economic benefits of outsiders (4, 5%), concentration of licenses and permits (3, 4%), and environmental conservation from environmental damage from solar power (2, 2%) as a total of 6 types (Lim & Yun, 2019).

Local governments are sensitive to local complaints because the head of the local government is decided by elections. Therefore, there are cases where the head of a local government blocks the solar power plant project by putting in place various ordinances and deliberation systems (Today Energy, 2019b). In order to start a solar power business, after permission for a power generation business (Article 7 of the Electricity Business Act), consultation with relevant ministries and local governments, and environmental impact assessment are conducted, followed by permission for development activities (Article 56 of the National Land Planning and Use Act). Even in the case of a project that has already secured a power plant license, it is impossible to proceed with the project if it does not receive permission from the underlying local government at the development activity permission stage (Kwon et al., 2020). In order to obtain a permit, it is necessary to obtain a permit at the discretion of the local government head or to persuade local residents with monetary compensation to obtain their consent. Even if the business operator has already compensated for the development activity, it causes loss of business profits or the cancellation of the plan because additional compensation is required to silence civil complaints. From 2016 to 2020, it was counted that only public enterprise projects that were canceled due to protests from residents amounted to KRW 1.586 trillion (8 projects, 278.5 MW capacity). In April 2020, the 563 billion won wind power project that Korea Southern Power had been promoting for over 10 years ran aground due to opposition from residents (Chosunilbo., 2020).

One of the reasons for these complaints is that the residents have the perception that most of the solar power projects are carried out by foreigners, and that all the big profits generated go out of the area and only the locals suffer damage. Haenam-gun county in Jeollanam-do was actively developing so that about 1% of the area applied for a solar power license. Due to the sudden increase in the solar power project, reckless development and damage to the landscape occurred, and most of the business operators were foreigners which caused land prices to rise, making it difficult for residents to secure farmland. Thus an amendment bill to strengthen the separation distance was proposed. Muan-gun county abolished the guidelines, which had been in operation since 2013, in 2017 at the recommendation of the government, but since then, the number of applications for solar power generation has surged to about 1000, so that the land price more than doubled and the side effects of complaints occurred, leaving them 100 m apart. The street ordinance was re-enacted (Lim & Yun, 2019).

In addition, due to fake news related to solar power, local residents take the separation distance regulation as a natural regulation (Environment Daily, 2020). Heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, chromium, and cadmium are not used in solar panels, and electromagnetic waves are less than microwave ovens used at home. However, residents still believe that heavy metal leaks and electromagnetic waves pose a threat to safety. There is also a concern about the light reflection of the solar panel. Since the solar module uses light to generate electricity, a special coating to absorb light is applied. Many residents have been affected by false information and exaggerated claims spread by the camp that links solar power supply with nuclear-free policies (Hankyoreh, 2020). According to an interview with a broadcasting company and the president of the Seoul Energy Corporation, in the process of promoting a photovoltaic power generation facility in the parking lot of Seoul Grand Park in Gwacheon, opposition from residents was met, and the city of Gwacheon refused to allow it. A solar power plant with a capacity of 10 MW was planned by installing a roof like a shade curtain in a parking lot with a site area of about 165,289 m2 and a parking lot that can accommodate about 6000 cars, but it was canceled because residents objected for reasons such as heavy metals, light reflection, and cleaning agents (TBS News, 2019). As such, complaints about fake news have a direct negative impact on the expansion of renewable energy nationwide.

6 Conclusions

Energy transition is a hotly debated social agenda in South Korea. If you look at the media coverage of renewable energy, which is a key factor in the energy transition, you can see that scientific and political factors interact. The number of renewable energy articles produced by major Korean media began to surge in June 2017 after President Moon Jae-in took office, reflecting the importance of the nuclear phase-out agenda in the government’s policy stance. However, there were not only positive reports about renewable energy, and the media was also an actor playing the role of a medium through which negative discourses were delivered to citizens. According to a study that analyzed media reports on solar power in rural areas actively promoted by the government, negative articles accounted for a significant proportion, although were fewer than positive articles. In the positive articles, a lot of content related to resident participation in renewable energy projects, which is important in terms of energy democracy, was discussed, while in the negative articles, problems such as residents’ opposition, environmental damage, and separation distance were raised.

The characteristics of positive and negative reports on renewable energy can be seen in more detail by comparing conservative and progressive media. Conservative media in South Korea produced a number of articles stating that nuclear phase-out is the wrong policy direction causing many problems, while progressive media tended to treat renewable energy as an important means of breaking away from the nuclear power system. In addition, the conservative media highlighted the occurrence of landslides caused by solar power or the damage to solar power caused by landslides, while the progressive media emphasized renewable energy and job creation as alternatives to fossil fuels to overcome the climate crisis. And in the case of television, the medium with the highest rate of use of news by citizens in South Korea, there were many articles linking renewable energy with negative images such as landslides and property damage. Some media have produced articles that provide statistically verified information that there is little correlation between solar power and landslides, but considering the overall volume of articles, it is difficult for citizens to access balanced information.

Conservative media produce contents that induce citizens to think negatively about nuclear phase out and energy transition, in the process of which information is distorted or deliberately excluded. As a representative example, the conservative media introduced the German media reports and presented the framework where Germany acknowledged the failure of its nuclear phase-out policy through the article, and excluded the context in which the active energy transition was emphasized. In the article that interviewed a German expert, the limitations of renewable energy and the problem of nuclear phase-out were highlighted, and the benefits of energy transition and the possibility of South Korea were excluded. In addition, the conservative media circulated intentionally distorted information that nuclear phase-out is the cause of fine dust. And while citing the research report, a framework of hate facilities, an expression not used in the report, was given to renewable energy. Articles have been produced to spread negative perceptions about the energy transition. Some media have tried to correct the false information of the conservative media based on objective data through fact-checking reports, but there are far more cases of biased information than those providing balanced information.

Conflicting information about renewable energy has been circulating in society, and the political inclinations of citizens can influence how much such information can be trusted. Conservative citizens form or reinforce the position that the expansion of renewable energy and the nuclear phase-out are realistically problematic based on the reports of conservative media. Progressive citizens can become more sympathetic to the need for energy transitions to renewable energy as a solution to the climate crisis, as highlighted by the progressive media. In such a situation, in order to make a measured decision on the energy transition, it is necessary to have a mature civic awareness to verify the debate over renewable energy through data rather than accepting it according to a political position. Energy democracy can be realized when citizens trust and support the media that provides balanced information of energy issues.

It is an obstacle to energy democracy for the media to play a role in supporting the traditional energy system while highlighting only the conflicts in the energy transition process. Currently, the biggest obstacle to the expansion of renewable energy in South Korea is the debate over separation distance regulations. More than half of South Korea’s population is concentrated in Seoul and Gyeonggi-do, and most renewable energy power plants are located in rural areas due to narrow spaces and high rents. However, local governments are going in the opposite direction to the government’s policy stance by introducing various regulations related to separation distance. Of course, it is also true that many side effects are occurring due to the rapid expansion of solar power generation as the target is pursued without detailed legal guidelines related to the location of renewable energy power plants. While the location is regulated by citing the case where a solar power plant built in a mountainous area due to poor construction collapsed in heavy rain, these regulations sometimes force operators who could not find an installation site to build in a mountainous area. In addition, as most of the profits from large-scale renewable energy power plants went abroad, only local residents suffered inconvenience and did not receive great benefits.

The types of complaints from residents include noise, low frequency, violation of the right to sunlight and views, forest damage and environmental destruction, land price drop, crop damage, flooding, soil leakage, and preservation of cultural properties. Most local governments appeared to have referenced the policies of other local governments, so they set separation distance regulations without knowledge and in-depth consideration of the characteristics of solar power generation facilities. In addition, since the head of local government is elected by voters, he is sensitive to local civil complaints. Non-standardized separation distance regulations can be broadly classified into four categories: distance regulation, location restriction regulation, and qualitative regulation. When all regulations and areas where installation is prohibited under the law are applied, the area that can be installed in some local governments is less than 1%. This shows that it is virtually impossible to install new solar power facilities, so it may be difficult not only to achieve the government’s solar power supply target, but also to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for carbon neutrality in 2050.

Opposition to the location of solar power facilities has various reasons, such as concern for the environment, property damage, and economic and political interest. In order to expand solar power facilities, it is necessary to include various stakeholders in the development planning stage to improve social acceptance by resolving concerns about health and landscape and providing appropriate compensation (Park & Yun, 2018). The pathway for citizens to obtain information on issues surrounding renewable energy is primarily through media reports, but if the media provides distorted information, it can undermine the energy democracy required in the energy transition. Residents affected by biased reports about solar power or fake news about heavy metal leaks will file a complaint against the construction of a solar power or wind power plant near their residence.

However, in the case of renewable energy power generation projects, plans are frequently changed or stranded due to friction with local residents during the site selection stage. In 2016, 37.5% of all solar and wind power projects had their permits rejected or withheld due to protests from residents in South Korea (Chung, 2017). Improving local acceptance is an important issue in achieving the government’s 2050 carbon neutral goal. Energy is closely related to domestic and foreign environmental issues such as climate change, and is intertwined with various interests throughout society and the economy. Since the existing producer-centered commercialization method can cause considerable social costs, project promotion based on communication between various stakeholders is required. In the process of promoting renewable energy projects such as solar and wind power, social conflicts are frequent due to misunderstanding and lack of understanding of renewable energy, unreasonable distribution of profits, and limited opportunities for participation. In such a situation, media reporting of facts is becoming increasingly important to improve social acceptance. It is encouraging that some media have recently created a team dedicated to climate crisis and are actively reporting on it. Energy transition and energy democracy can be realized more meaningfully when more forward-looking news reports on energy transition that can prevent the serious progress of the climate crisis are produced.