Expansion of solar power heralds opportunities, challenges
Solar energy trellises dotting farmland have formed a “crop and energy farming ecosphere” that only stands to get bigger with the imminent institution of electricity liberalization.
Taiwan’s only expert in “climate politics,” Tze-Luen Alan Lin, associate professor of political science at National Taiwan University (NTU), sits in the university’s faculty lounge, looking haggard from the strain and excitement of the recent birth of his second child. But when he sees the CommonWealth reporter, he becomes animated as he relishes in describing his latest plan.
Long active in anti-nuclear campaigns, Lin got together with other like-minded NTU alumni to form Green Dot Communities, a company that installs free rooftop solar panels for old age homes. The firm will derive its income by sharing in the money derived from selling power generated by the panels. At present they have reached cooperative agreements with two old age homes in northern Taiwan.
“A similar concept, known as ‘energy welfare,’ has been adopted in other countries,” explains Lin. His company’s is the latest, most unusual model for solar en- ergy companies — the hottest new industry in Taiwan at the moment.
Observant passengers on Taiwan’s high-speed rail line will have noticed in the past year or two a growing number of solar panels appearing, sparkling in the sunlight on roofs in rural areas.
In rural Pingtung and Yunlin counties, one can even see billboards reading, “Turn your roof into a cash machine.”
Renewable Energy on the Rise
The winds have quietly shifted. In late July, the Executive Yuan unexpectedly announced that it had purchased an additional 230 megawatts of solar- generated power this year, taking the yearly total to 500 MW, 85 percent more than last year.
At about the same time, the electricity industry liberalization that environmentalists had pushed for more than a decade was right on the horizon.
In mid-July, the Executive Yuan passed a draft revision of the Electricity Act. The new law breaks Taipower’s monopoly on electric power, allowing electricity providers to compete freely. Judging by the experience of other countries, this move is expected to further stimulate the growth of solar energy and other emerging modes of energy generation.
“Everything has really moved so quickly lately that I’ve hardly even had time to think about what’s going on,” says a very pleased Lin.
For Lin, who has attended annual United Nations Climate Change Conference several years in a row, the government’s flurry of green energy policy moves was perfectly timed.
Lin relates that a major breakthrough is expected to transpire at this year’s U.N. climate summit in Paris in December, as nations are expected to reach a consensus on a greenhouse emissions platform similar to the Kyoto Protocol. Professor Lin believes that a host of emissions reduction-related mechanisms, including carbon (dioxide) pricing and trading, will become reality, greatly boosting the competitiveness of renewable energy.
The Bureau of Energy (Ministry of Economic Affairs, MOEA) introduced the Million Sunny Rooftops Project three years ago, setting off a cascade of new energy startups. The installed capacity of solar power facilities has doubled every year since then, and 581 MW of installed capacity was in place throughout Taiwan as of June according to Taipower statistics.
And the Executive Yuan’s latest pronouncement is that it aims to add an additional 500 MW of installed capacity every year in the future.
The current target is for the installed capacity of photovoltaic (PV) installations around Taiwan to reach 8700 MW by 2030. If achieved, it will account for 30 percent of the island’s total installed power capacity.
For Farmers, a Source of
The robust development of solar power has even led to a sphere of prosperity between agriculture and electricity across the agricultural areas of Central and Southern Taiwan. For instance, not far from the Taiwan high-speed rail line in Yunlin County’s Paochung Township, a brand new “solar chicken coop” was completed early this year. The structure, occupying an area equivalent to two basketball courts and made from corrugated aluminum, was designed to accommodate rooftop solar batteries, tilting in a southerly direction.
Over the next 20 years, the 0.49-megawatt capacity installation will bring coop owner Chen Chu-tsai over NT$4 million per year in “electricity generation” fees from Taipower. Accounting for installation costs, depreciation and amortization, and interest, Chen stands to profit by more than NT$2 million a year.
Chen relates that when the prices are good, the coop - which houses over 30,000 chickens harvested for their meat — can make him NT$2 million to NT$3 million a year. But when the market is down, like when a bird flu outbreak struck early this year, “a lot of (poultry farmers) were put out of house and home,” he says.
The benefits of the agriculture and electricity ecosphere are plain to see. An additional stable income from green energy can help farmers, who are vulnerable to the whims of the weather, achieve economic security even in lean years.
In countries that began promoting solar power long before Taiwan, such as Germany and Japan, “solar energy farms” have long been a hot topic.
In addition to producing crops, the era of fields “harvesting” energy is dawning. These changes prompted Nikkei Technology to declare in 2013 that “the concept of ‘agriculture’ is set to undergo a fundamental transformation.”
A number of individuals in Pingtung and Yunlin have taken these notions to heart and put them into practice, further hoping to attract young people back to the countryside to work in agriculture.
However, Chen Chu-tsai’s application to build three more solar chicken coops earlier this year was denied by the local government, due to suspicion of engaging in false advertising.
A man takes a photo next to solar energy power systems developed by Taiwan’s state-run Institute of Nuclear Energy Research in Taoyuan, Jan. 18, 2008. The technology reduces by a large amount the quantity of solar cells being used, meeting the target of raising efficiency and cutting down costs.