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Taiwan's Green Island not living up to its name

Ecosystem damaged by overtourism, yet island has incredible sustainable energy potential

Landscape photo of Green Island shoreline. (Manuel Zehr photo)

Landscape photo of Green Island shoreline. (Manuel Zehr photo)

Green Island may sound like something out of the movie "Moana," a lush islet of environmentally friendly bliss, but this eastern Taiwanese island is looking decidedly off-color.

As a renewable energy expert, I see how the island could play a vital role in Taiwan’s and even Asia’s decarbonization and energy transition policy. Yet its potential will remain hidden unless more action is taken to protect its ecosystem and develop projects that suit its natural environs.

A recent visit to the island revealed a kind of administrative vacuum.

Discarded signs can be seen lying by the road that pronounce a “National Park Under Environmental Protection,” but dozens of B&Bs are being constructed in the immediate surrounds. Scores of deer and sheep are held in public captivity to attract tourists and provide a local meat supply, with jerky proving particularly popular among student visitors.

On New Year’s Eve 2021, the island’s mayor took to the stage at a concert and proudly announced that over 2,000 visitors had come to ring in the new year on the island — a number that far exceeds the local population. The island has just two small police stations and one tiny coast guard outpost.

Needless to say, the authorities were unable to manage the huge number of young visitors that ran amok that night. Since no one could maintain law and order, partiers eschewed both masks and scooter helmets, and Green Island started the new year awash with empty beer cans and cigarette butts.

My diving instructor was shocked by the sight of over 300 young people snorkeling en masse without having prepared properly beforehand. He said in his two years working as an instructor, he had never fed any marine life nor picked up coral, but the seabed was suddenly ravaged by this surge of unsupervised swimmers.

Today, almost all the owners of local businesses on Green Island live on Taiwan’s main island (most are based in Taipei or Taichung). Most of the people working on Green Island are not registered as local residents and come and go on short-term contracts or even for one-day gigs.

The data show the island to have impressive renewable energy potential. Green Island, along with Japan and Italy, boasts some of the largest hot spring resorts in the world, which makes it an excellent source of untapped geothermal energy.

In fact, the Taiwan Geothermal Association has identified two potential geothermal energy sources on the island.

The Industrial Technology Research Institute did build a plant on neighboring Orchid Island, which is populated by the Indigenous Tao tribe. However, it was not taken further since Taipower has not been able to work out the issue of its nuclear waste with the local inhabitants and how to fairly share the land between stakeholder groups.

Green Island, on the other hand, has no native population, with its former Amis population driven out centuries ago by Han Chinese settlers looking to control its fishing waters.

The Kuroshio Current surges at a speed of 4 knots per second around the north end of the island, which descends dramatically 800 meters below the surface. The area is frequented by an impressive variety of marine life, like the hammerhead sharks and sperm whales that pass by on their way to Japanese waters.

Strong tidal movements churn here all year long, and there is regular rainfall, making it a perfect testing ground for developers to test out their marine energy devices. Sandbox experiments involving green hydrogen are made possible by collecting rainwater and processing it into fuel to power transportation on and to the island.

Green Island should be considered a leading candidate for the host of Asia’s Marine Energy Centre and as a partner for Europe’s Marine Energy Center (EMEC). The latter might be located in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, but it attracts all sorts of interested parties, from device developers to hydrogen manufacturers and even modern transportation such as hydro-airplanes.

The U.S., Canada, Peru, and other countries are building their own marine energy centers, yet Asia has been very passive. Were Green Island to take the lead, it could become a hub for innovation, and Taiwan would benefit from an influx of R&D.

The big secret of success in the West has been the close cooperation between academics and private start-ups that were both government-funded before reaching commercial scale.

Perhaps even the Helgoland model might work in the Green Island context, with fossil vehicles banned and a circular economy featuring 100% recycling and sustainable systems.

Horse-drawn carriages can be found on the German archipelago even today. Perhaps pony or donkey carts could be an option on Green Island — such a novelty would doubtless prove a hit with Taiwanese visitors from the main island.

Yet as of today, Taipower has a complete monopoly on the island’s grid, which is powered by a diesel plant. It blows the very same particles into the air that triggered a class-action lawsuit against Volkswagen in the U.S. for causing lung cancer.

The island has great potential to be an engine in Taiwan’s energy transition, but this will require an overhaul of the status quo. What is needed are inclusive, community-based solutions that tap into the island’s natural assets, empower its local population, and encourage sustainable tourism.

Manuel Zehr is a German citizen who since 2000 has lived in Taiwan, where he graduated from Soochow University with a bachelor's degree in business administration. He has started several successful businesses in Taiwan, and his latest is dedicated to the country’s energy transition. He is currently doing his master of science in marine energy at Heriott-Watt University.

Updated : 2022-01-26 17:16 GMT+08:00