Hyundai solar power plant, Spain

In April, some people were (happily) surprised when the South Korean company, Hyundai, announced it had taken the initial steps to join an international partnership and build the world’s largest solar photovoltaic (PV) power plant in southeastern Arizona.

At 150 MW, the solar plant outside of Dragoon, AZ, will be 2.5 times larger than the largest PV plant existing today (a sprawling 60 MW facility in Olmedilla, Spain).

Just 10 miles down the road in Cochise, AZ, HHI will also build a much smaller PV solar plant — just 25 MW. (Small by today’s standards, but the Cochise plant will still be larger than the total U.S. industrial scale PV capacity in 2005.)

No one should have been too surprised, however. The South Korean industrial powerhouse never does things in a small way. The company owns the world’s largest shipyard, where it produces super-tankers, container ships and other large vessels including  LNG carriers the length of three football fields.

In 2008, HHI announced it was expanding its then-small solar power unit by investing $253 million to enlarge a solar cell factory in Eumseong, South Korea. This was just a start, said HHI’s CEO, Min Keh-sik.

Our goal,” he stated, “is to make Hyundai Heavy Industries the center of the international photovoltaic industry.”

Hyundai 1.65 MW Wind Turbine

HHI also expanded into wind power. This March the company finished building the largest (of course) wind turbine factory in Korea, and has since announced joint deals in China and Pakistan.

(Hyundai Motor Company — the branch of Hyundai that most Americans know and that separated from the Hyundai group in 2000 — recently announced its own plans to green up. GreenBiz reported last week that Hyundai Motor America had set a target of 50 mpg for its entire car and light truck fleet by 2025.)

South Korea’s move into these renewable technologies, and nuclear power, is an outgrowth of a larger fact of Korean life. The country produces no oil, has little coal and only limited natural gas reserves. Combustion means imports (and global warming). The Korean government decided that the country’s future depended on renewables and nuclear power.

This quest for energy independence has led to a manufacturing boom and increased exports. In the first half of 2010, South Korea exported just over $2 billion in solar and wind energy-related products — twice the amount sent abroad in the first six months of 2009.

The country had redefined what it means to be an “energy powerhouse” said a government official in July. The term was previously reserved for countries with an abundance of oil and coal. Now, the official told the Korea Times, the key was next-generation energy sources.

“Under the new definition,” said Yoo Jae-ho, “I think Korea fits into the category of an energy powerhouse in consideration of its technological edge in renewable or nuclear power.”

The Arizona solar plants are an integral part of HHI’s strategy. The solar modules will be imported from Hyundai’s newly expanded plant in Eumseong, making Arizona a demonstration project of sorts.

“The deal will establish Hyundai as an international supplier of large-scale solar energy plants,” Kim Kweon-tae, COO of HHI’s electrical division, told a South Korean newspaper. “We will do our best to win additional orders of large plants in the United States, as well as in Europe and Asia.”

Partners in the venture are Nevada-based Matinee Energy and Korea-based LG Electronics.