Diary from Taiwan: The island nation grapples with nuclear and clean power

Taipei, Taiwan: It was a powerful (6.0) earthquake that ripped through central Taiwan that caused me to think about the similarities between Japan and Taiwan’s energy futures. A day after I arrived in Taiwan a little over two weeks ago, the strong earthquake caused my family’s apartment of the 11th floor in Taipei to sway back and forth — the tremor killed one person, injured at least 19 near the epicenter and invited anti-nuclear newspaper articles the following morning.

As a close neighbor of Japan, Taiwan’s energy future shares similarities for both energy technology development as well as energy challenges. Both island countries have traditionally relied mostly on imported fossil fuel resources and are highly earthquake prone, which have fueled intense debates over nuclear power policies as well as a further push into clean energy.

A wind farm in Miaoli, Taiwan.

A wind farm in Miaoli, Taiwan.

A week after the quake, I hiked to a seaside town about two hours south of Taipei, and was greeted with a coastline dotted with wind turbines. On another excursion during the trip, a hydroelectric dam near Taipei exposed distressingly low water levels and a big swath of dry lake shores. The water from the reservoir irrigates farms and supplies drinking water for homes and businesses. Like parts of the U.S. gripped by drought, Taiwan needs more rain and to figure out ways to make up for the shortfall.

Renewable energy, resource conservation and protests over nuclear power are nothing new in the history of energy development in many parts of the world. But population and economic growth, which taxes and at times destroys our environment, requires much more thoughtful planning for where and how we produce energy. Taiwan, along with mainland China, and post-Fukushima Japan, are increasingly being forced to address these issues.

Look to Japan

Japan has become a hot market for solar energy and other renewable energy generation, as well as energy storage, after an earthquake wrecked the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March 2011. The government put in place generous subsidies for alternative energy development. Both IHS and Bloomberg New Energy Finance predict that Japan will add more solar power generation than any country except China in 2013.

Taiwan wind power map.

A map of wind farms in Taiwan.

The Fukushima disaster prompted Taiwan to re-examine its nuclear power policy and stirred protests against the construction of a fourth nuclear power plant, which is actually close to completion.

Taiwan also subsidizes clean power and plans to increase solar and wind energy development. Late last year, the government raised the 2013 target for new solar energy generation by 30 percent to 130 megawatts. The country is pushing for wind farm construction on the coast because it already has made use of suitable wind resource island, according to Taiwan Power Co. By the end of 2012, Taiwan had 559.66 megawatts of cumulative wind power generation capacity and 134.3 megawatts of solar power generation capacity, the utility said.

Shihmen Dam in Taoyuan, Taiwan.

Shihmen Dam in Taoyuan, Taiwan.

Renewable electricity generation capacity (excluding hydropower) accounted for just over 6 percent of Taiwan’s total (41.4 gigawatts). In terms of the actual power produced — solar and wind farms can’t generate power around the clock — and renewable electricity made up nearly 3 percent of the total power produced, according to Taiwan Power’s most recent, 2012 sustainability report.

Solar energy should play a larger in Taiwan given that, like Japan, Taiwan is home to major solar cell makers. Promoting more solar energy production also will help Taiwan’s domestic solar manufacturers, who also have been hit hard by an oversupply of solar cells in the global market over the past two years. The glut has caused prices to crash and forced many solar manufacturers to go out of business.

The low water level at the Shihmen Dam.

The low water level at the Shihmen Dam.

One of the largest Taiwanese solar cell makers, Neo Solar Power, recently announced a survival plan to merge with another Taiwanese solar cell maker, DelSolar. Neo Solar said the combined company will have “close to 2 gigawatts” of production capacity, which would be comparable to First Solar’s capacity of 1.9 gigawatts at the end of 2012.

For Taiwan and its 23.3 million people, adding more solar and wind power makes economic sense and helps it to gradually reduce its reliance on imported fossil fuels and perhaps its own struggle with whether to build more nuclear power plants over the long run. As the nation takes cues from Japan, and others, expect to see a greater push into clean power, and more controversy over nuclear.