‘Electricity farming’ is the business trend that is reshaping the domestic market
Chen Chu-tsai was unable to escape the reverberations of “fake agriculture, real electricity farming” news reports.
In the effort to accelerate the pace of the million sunny rooftops program, in October 2013 the Executive Yuan worked with the Council for Agriculture to permit “designated agricultural areas and general agricultural areas” to apply for and build solar power facilities, provided that they be ancillary to “agricultural production facilities.”
In just one year, “PV parks” with comparable power generation capacity to Chen cropped up all over the Yunlin countryside like mushrooms after a spring rain, becoming the main source of the significant growth of solar electricity in Taiwan last year. But the areas under many of the solar tents were barren, save for tangles of brush and weeds.
Extensive negative media coverage described it as a “second farmland disaster” after a previous wave of misappropriation of designated farmland for residential and commercial usage. Agriculture chief Chen Bao-ji promptly put a halt to the program, tasking local governments to conduct strict inspections.
In an interview with CommonWealth, Chen Bao-ji stressed that “energy farms” must first of all be run as actual agricultural farms. “If solar power (production) impacts your (existing) agricultural production, that’s not acceptable,” he said.
Conducting a survey of our own on the ground in Yunlin County, CommonWealth found that there were indeed a certain number of newly constructed greenhouse-like trellises within which there was a row of mushrooms growing in insulation material but no sign of irrigation equipment. A local figure accompanying our reporter explained that this was a method of subterfuge to trick local agriculture department auditors.
Chen described these as “perpetual mushrooms,” adding: “when you see those mushroom coverings you know it’s a deceptive farming operation.”
Several large facilities suspiciously appearing to be fake farmers and real energy growers are owned by Light Master, a company located in the Taipei suburb of Xinzhuang.
‘No one was growing anything’
Light Master is the owner of Yunlin County’s largest solar farm facility. Last year alone, Light Master put up 57 installations with a combined power output of 20 MW, sufficient to provide power for over 7,000 households.
“In the beginning, no one was actually growing anything,” admits a Light Master business associate. The majority of investors in solar farms figured early on that they would be lucky enough to avoid running into trouble, but as the Council of Agriculture began conducting strict inspections, businesses were forced to farm for real. They started to immerse themselves in techniques for raising crops that grow well in the shade and offer high economic value, including mushrooms, lingzhi, black fungus, and shitake mushrooms, all of which are popular.
Light Master President Tsai Tsung-jung ( ) pointed out a photo and related that it was a picture of a fungus that experts he hired took two years to develop. He said it sells for up to NT$1,000 for 600 grams. He also displays wasabi experimentally grown by a Huwei University of Science and Technol- ogy professor. In the future, these crops can be grown underneath the more than 100 pens Tsai owns, grown in rotation in the summer and winter months with an edible member of the fern family, guiniao.
“Now we are really serious about agriculture,” insists Tsai.
A graduate of National Chengkung University with a degree in electrical engineering, Tsai’s core business is the production of power systems, marketed in Europe under the Power Master brand.
Other large Taiwanese optoelectronics firms actively invested in solar power include LCY Technology and Tatung — owners of numerous agricultural pens and PV roofs in Pingtung — Anji Technology, Neo Solar Power Corp. and Giga Solar Materials, which concentrate on overseas markets. Like Light Master, these companies’ core business is related to solar power.
However, it is a financial leasing firm, Chailease Finance, which is growing rapidly through the acquisition of solar power facilities.
Since throwing its hat in the solar power ring just two years ago, Chailease acquired 71 electricity facilities with combined installed capacity of 22.5 MW last year from Neo Solar, quickly becoming one of Taiwan’s top players in electric power generation.
Chailease even announced that it planned to reach an installed capacity of over 150 MW worth over NT$10 billion within the next two to three years through a combination of newly built and acquired facilities.
With no shortage of bidders, the Bureau of Energy’s listed prices for solar energy have dropped precipitously every year of late, the latest price having dropped to NT$5.0 per kwh. Compared to two years ago, when it was NT$8 per kwh, these businesses’ profitability has become increasingly limited.
ShinIng Energy CEO Lewis Hsu ( ), a corporate lawyer by trade, believes that having reached the price slashing stage, big financial corporations like Chailease are well positioned, “due to better access to capital than other companies,” he contends.
A number of businesses believe that Chailease could end up as the Taiwan market’s “final winner.” Meanwhile, other companies are heading to Japan and points around Southeast Asia to bid for solar energy facilities in a “photovoltaic Asia Cup” of sorts.
From energy, to industry and the environment, “electricity farming” is reshaping Taiwan in many ways. Translated from the Chinese by David Toman Additional reading selections can be found at http://english.cw.com. tw