Why Taiwan must focus on developing a balanced energy supply

As Taiwan steps up offshore wind investments, their focus needs to be on building a balanced energy supply and replacing polluting fossil fuel burning power stations


(Wikimedia Commons photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- Taiwan’s energy supply is in a transitional phase at the moment as the government attempts to shift supplies away from coal-fired power stations and nuclear power and towards more green energy sources.

It is an admirable goal and also an extremely ambitious one. As of 2014, just 1.7 percent of Taiwan’s total energy consumption came from renewable sources, with biomass and waste burning accounting for 1.2 percent of that. In contrast, coal accounted for 29.2 percent and oil a whopping 48.5 percent.

Taiwan is not rich in fossil fuels itself, so it is therefore dependent on coal and oil imports for much of its energy. This means that much of Taiwan’s energy is expensive and insecure, as it relies on overseas supplies. And then, of course, there is the huge environmental impact these coal-fueled power stations have.

A few weeks back I wrote about the Taichung Power Plant (台中發電廠). It is the largest coal-fired power station on earth and also the single largest emitter of carbon dioxide anywhere on the planet, producing 40 million tons of CO2 every year. That’s about the same amount as is produced by Switzerland… the whole country of Switzerland!

Taiwan has five coal-fired power stations like this. Two of the others, Mailiao Power Plant (麥寮電廠) in Yunlin and Hsinta Power Plant (興達發電廠) in Kaohsiung have about three-quarters of the capacity, and therefore also the emissions, of the Taichung Plant.

Taiwan is also home to five diesel-fueled power plants, a further ten which burn natural gas, one which uses mixed fuels and another which uses fuel oil. The combined impact of these plants on the environment is undoubtedly catastrophic. And yet without them, much of Taiwan would plunge into darkness.

Despite the obvious impact of these fossil fuel plants, much of the public and political focus of Taiwan’s energy policy has been on nuclear power. There are four nuclear power plants in Taiwan and the current DPP administration has pledged to close them all.

It has proved a popular policy with voters at the ballot box in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011. The question is, if Taiwan is going to abandon nuclear power altogether and has pledged to cut coal-fired power supply too, what is going to take up the slack?

While the obvious answer to that question is renewable energy, it is unrealistic in the short term for renewable sources to fill such a huge proportion of Taiwan’s energy supply. Taiwan, therefore, needs to focus on developing a balanced energy supply and this means making some difficult decisions.

The role of renewables

Firstly, there is no doubt that renewable energies should be front and center of any new energy strategy. They are popular with voters, kind to Taiwan’s already suffering environment, offer broader economic benefits, and a good fit given Taiwan’s geographic circumstances.

The government recently announced large-scale investment in offshore wind projects around the country. Most people have welcomed this, but there has to be a note of caution attached to such schemes too.

Such schemes can cause serious damage to marine ecosystems if not regulated properly. And wind power is not always reliable power source. When the wind does not blow, or even when it blows too strongly, the turbines will not be turning, and energy will not be generated. This means that backup supplies will have to fill the gap, which usually means fossil fuel plants.

Any proposed onshore wind schemes will need to be focused on enabling small-scale local farms or individual turbines which can provide energy directly to local communities. Taiwan’s mountainous regions are culturally and environmentally important, as well as breathtakingly beautiful, and to sully them with large-scale wind farms would be a travesty.

Two other renewable energy sources which Taiwan seems ideally suited for is wave and tidal power. As an island nation, with a coastline which is already largely industrialized, the installation of tidal and wave barriers around much of the country would be much less controversial than many other places in the world. And both wave and tidal power have the advantage of being much more consistent and reliable than wind power.

But the obvious renewable energy source for homes and businesses across Taiwan is solar power. The sun shines brightly across Taiwan all year round and is a dependable and clean source of energy.

Despite this, solar panels are not a common site on either residential or industrial buildings. They are even rare on new build properties, yet in many other parts of the world, solar panels are often included on new constructions as standard. Subsidies for individual households and requirements for developers to add solar panels to new builds would be a good way to expand take-up.

There is undoubtedly an opportunity for Taiwan to become a regional leader in renewable energies if the Government can get their energy policy right. There are big gaps in the market, especially in south-east Asia, and therefore opportunities for Taiwan to create a flourishing new green-tech economy boom. It is also a chance for Taiwan to differentiate itself from China, where the environment and green energy is rarely seen as a priority over short-term economic gains.

A rounded energy policy

But if Taiwan is going to step up the role of renewables, it has to be as part of a balanced energy policy, in which other less green technologies must play a role in the short to medium term. Renewable energy cannot replace coal-fired power stations overnight. There should, therefore, be an effort put into improving Taiwan’s existing fossil fuel power stations, making them more economically and environmentally efficient.

And there is also a case to be made for retaining some form of nuclear power in the short term at least. It may be unpopular with voters, but it still generates around 8 percent of Taiwan’s energy and few would argue that it is the existing fossil fuel power stations that are causing more harm to the environment right now.

There are no easy solutions and the Government has some difficult decisions to make. It needs to think carefully and make decisions for the long-term benefit of Taiwan and its people rather than for short-term political purposes.

It has a responsibility to shape Taiwan’s energy supply in the long-term and create a balanced and sustainable supply that can cope with demand both today and into the future. The shift towards renewable sources needs to be at the center of this, but in the short-term at least, it cannot be the only answer.