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Dark days for heavy industry see shipbuilders turn to the light

By Pamela Boykoff, CNN
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Heavy industry turns to the light
  • South Korean shipbuilder Hyundai Heavy Industries moved to renewable energy production
  • Shift in business a result of economic downturn that saw new ship orders fall 70 percent
  • Solar factory in Eumseong, South Korea, has capacity of 510 megawatts

(CNN) -- In a land-locked factory two hours south of Seoul, Hyundai Heavy Industries, the world's largest shipbuilder, has committed itself to a new venture.

The Eumseong solar power factory churns out solar cells and modules, mostly for export to European markets.

With a current capacity of 510 Megawatts, the factory is creating enough modules to power the equivalent of 1.7 million South Korean homes.

For a company long associated with the iconic images of giant cranes and massive vessels emerging from its Ulsan shipyards, this is a decidedly smaller project. The cells are small, the factory is small, right now even the volumes are small. But the potential for growth is huge.

Jeong C. You, a senior vice president for renewable energy, says revenue from the solar business last year came in about $150 million. This year, he is expecting nearly four times that. He believes the renewables division, which includes both wind power and solar, will become an increasing part of Hyundai's overall success.

It is very easy to jump into the renewable energy business for South Korea's shipbuilders.
--Youngsoo Han, Samsung Securities
  • South Korea
  • Business
  • Asia

"At the moment our sales and revenue for the renewable energy business is just two percent," he tells CNN. "Not that big. But maybe in five years it goes up to ten percent."

That's welcome news for Hyundai Heavy. The financial crises hammered shipbuilders, sending new orders down as much as 70 percent industry-wide. Hyundai Heavy and its competitors turned to diversification, trying to pull in profits building oil platforms, transformers and, yes, renewable energy systems.

Youngsoo Han, who covers Hyundai Heavy for Samsung Securities, says the renewables business might not be a meaningful size right now, but its rapid growth has "symbolic meaning" in light of the troubles in the core business.

With a weak domestic market, South Korean companies are relative latecomers to the renewable energy game and they still trail behind industry leaders from the U.S., China and Japan. To their advantage though is considerable experience gained in decades of shipbuilding and assembling electronics systems.

Compared to other Asian competitors, "Korea has a very strong background, technical experience and manufacturing capabilities," says You.

Han agrees, pointing to competitors like Hyundai Heavy, Samsung Heavy, or Doosan Heavy Industries. "It is very easy to jump into that kind of business for the shipbuilders."

South Korea, which is heavily dependent on oil and gas imports, has made a major push this year to encourage the development of the domestic renewable sector.

In mid-October, a presidential task force unveiled a plan to spend $35 billion on renewable energy projects, with the majority of that money pledged by the private sector.