The Yin and Yang of Jeju Island: From Swimming Mermaids to Solar Energy

Posted on November 8, 2011


When I traveled in June to Jeju Island, southwest of the Korean Peninsula, I looked forward to a glimpse of Nature that Koreans know as the Hawaii of the East.  What I found was tradition giving way to technology. Having gathered seafood for their communities for nearly two thousand years, the Korean mermaids known as haenyeo (female divers) will see the Jeju Smart Grid pilot project transform the island with renewable energy. Click here to watch the National Geographic Video of the Korean female divers. Those who live there or travel there will experience the contrast of yin and yang: two complementary forces that balance each other in Nature and the universe. Yang is represented by the sun, light, heat, summer and masculine attributes. Yin is represented by the moon, darkness, cold, winter and feminine attributes.

Jeju Island Haenyeo (Courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization)

The Yin

On Nov. 11th, Jeju Island was officially named one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature . (Click Here to view all 7 Wonders). Jeju is in good company with the other 6 Wonders being (in alphabetical order): the Amazon Rainforest, Halong Bay, Iguazu Falls, Komodo Island, Puerto Princesa Underground River, and Table Mountain. The list began with over 200 nominees that were submitted to The New7Wonders Foundation (in Switzerland) from 2007 to 2009 as the initial part of the selection process.

With breathtaking natural beauty and several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Jeju Island has a yin that is most signified by the Korean mermaids who have collected shellfish and seaweed for the wellbeing of their fishing villages. As they dive among the volcanic rocks along the shore, the haenyeo dive:

  • As many as 30 times per hour at depths of 30 to 100 feet for 2 to 3 minutes at a time;
  • Without any special scuba equipment and rely on special breathing techniques to store the oxygen they need for long diving periods at considerable depths;
  • Year round at water temperatures in winter that are as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit;
  • With divers’ ages ranging from 45 to 75 years old; the vast majority are over 60 as younger generations seek city-centered jobs.

The island is also famous for the Jeju Olle (walking paths that represent gateways to the world). With over 125 miles of scenic hiking trails throughout Jeju,  the Olle has become so famous that Tony Wheeler, the co-founder of Lonely Planet (the world’s largest travel guide book), shared his love of walking at a recent press conference early November after spending a day at Jeju Island . With subtropical forests, turquoise blue waters, lava caves, sandy beaches, craters and mountains, Jeju is full of scenery that seems to originate from the Garden of Eden.

The Yang

In June 2011, Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), the largest electric utility in South Korea, announced its plan to collaborate with IBM to build a Total Operations Center at the Jeju Smart Grid Demonstration Complex.  The Smart Grid model will enable each home to serve as a micro-grid with residential power derived from solar panels or wind turbines. The infrastructure includes five main showrooms and test facilities owned and run by LG, GS Caltex, SK, POSCO and KEPCO and includes a fully-functioning total operating center (TOC). The show-rooms and test facilities are scattered along the Northeastern corridor of Jeju Island and will be a stark contrast to the natural beauty that has made Jeju a New 7 Wonders finalist. [See the map below.]

Courtesy: Jeju Smart Grid Test-Bed

Courtesy: Jeju Smart Grid Test-Bed

The Jeju Smart Grid Test-bed will become the world’s largest Smart Grid community that allows the testing of the most advanced Smart Grid technologies and R&D results, as well as the development of business models. Nearly 6000 homes will be participating in this program –about 3% of Jeju households. As a comparison within the U.S., the Pecan Street project in Austin, Texas, is ramping to 200 homes and could scale to as many as 1000 residences over a five-year period. Green energy has been part of Jeju livelihood for years. Hundreds of wind turbines hug the shoreline and solar-powered boilers and rooftop solar panels are used by farmers for their daily renewable energy needs.  If all succeeds with the Smart Grid pilot program, the Korean government’s goal is to transplant the model to mainland Korea and then to the world.

Yin-Yang Balance

If you ever travel to Korea, you will enjoy Jeju, for it is a venue that is befitting of Korea’s travel slogan: Be Inspired. While the haenyeo way of life seems to be an anachronism amidst the bustling expansion of the Smart Grid Pilot Program, each has found a way to co-exist with the other. Jeju has found a way to celebrate tradition and technology with several unique tours that describe the benefits of each. Learn more about the variety of Jeju Tour options on the official Korean Travel Site.

As Korea succeeds in converting such a notable portion of Jeju (the Hawaii of the East) to renewable energy, the U.S. should take heed. Just as Korean corporations like Samsung and LG have succeeded in dominating market share in smartphones, televisions, and household appliances, we may find our renewable energy future supplied by Korea. As Korea’s Smart Grid project  highlights: Jeju, For the World’s Green Growth.

Will Korea pave the way for Renewable Energy growth in the U.S.? Why or why not?

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© 2011 by Ed Valdez. All rights reserved.

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Posted in: Eco Leader