Commitment to renewable energy

By Gavin Lee 李佳達  / 

Tue, May 10, 2011 - Page 8

The big anti-nuclear protests that took place in Taipei and elsewhere on April 30 concluded peacefully, although the mood was a little somber.

Two Japanese who had reportedly been evacuated from their homes near the disaster-struck Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant came all the way to Taipei to take part in the protest. When police learned that they planned to speak at the gathering, a warning was issued that such an act could result in them being banned from Taiwan for life, because it would violate the terms of their tourist visas.

Unfazed by the threat, the two went ahead with their speech and said something that moved everyone who was listening: “While this demonstration is going on, it turns out that the people who are really afraid is your government.”

From the public’s point of view, the matter is quite simple, because no matter what the arguments for and against nuclear power, in the end there are only two options: Either we go ahead with it, or we don’t. There is no gray area and no room for compromise.

The Statute For Renewable Energy Development (再生能源發展條例) was promulgated on July 8, 2009, but it was not until Aug. 16 last year that the state-owned Taiwan Power Co changed its procedure for purchasing energy from renewable sources so that it could start to legally handle applications for suppliers to connect to the power grid.

However, media reports have said that the application process is so complicated that not a single application has been completed in 16 months. Moreover, building and land laws and regulations also impose restrictions, namely if the area in question is more than 660m2, the owner is required to first apply for a land-use redesignation, which is a complicated affair.

Single-owners of low-rise properties and buildings with corrugated roofs, which are widespread in the south, are not eligible for subsidies because of building permit problems.

After Typhoon Morakot caused widespread damage in central and southern Taiwan in August 2009, a solar energy promotion program was established to help victims in Pingtung County recover from the disaster. Much to their surprise, however, residents were told that the government had decided subsidies would not be disbursed from the day the contract was signed as originally indicated, but on the day construction is completed.

Article 6 of the statute sets an impressive-sounding target of 6.5GW to 10GW of renewable energy generation capacity under government subsidy, but last year, only 8MW of generating capacity joined the power grid and went into operation. At this rate it would take 100 years for the target to be reached.

In an attempt to counter the strong swing of public opinion against nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster, the government has been saying that if Taiwan gave up on nuclear power, the price of electricity would quadruple. It is even trying to scare people with the suggestion that a quarter to a third of all businesses could go bankrupt.

The government says renewable energy is too expensive and that renewable energy generators have already been built everywhere they could be built. This claim has already been rebutted in letters to the media from leading solar energy companies.

For solar energy to take the place of nuclear power in Taiwan is not only possible, but could be done straight away. Take the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, which is still under construction, for example — when one takes into account the land occupied and the cost of construction, as well as future operating costs and external costs, solar energy is not more expensive and would not take up more space. Moreover, it does not involve future operating costs, carries no risk of nuclear accidents and all the equipment needed could be made in Taiwan within one year.

The government’s response has been to restrict subsidies to businesses and the public, saying it cannot allow solar energy firms make unreasonably high profits. It also wants to create the false impression that the successes these firms have achieved are essentially the result of government support. At the same time, the government says that solar energy will keep getting cheaper, so we should wait for manufacturers to develop the technology first and then Taiwan can start using it when costs have dropped.

The market is simpler than democracy; the key question is how to survive. The government’s contrived reasoning is easily disproved by market realities. Last year, total output by Taiwan’s solar power manufacturers was NT$200 billion (US$6.98 billion), accounting for 12.7 percent of global production and ranking second worldwide in solar energy equipment manufacturing.

In contrast, when it comes to the installation of solar energy generation, Taiwan accounts for a mere 0.1 percent of the world total. The nation’s big solar power plants are all focused on overseas markets; as such, none of these companies depends on Taiwanese government subsidies.

This stands in stark contrast to the situation in many other countries. For example, the Chinese government supports the industry by providing loans and guarantees for building solar power plants and by subsidizing pilot schemes around the country. China uses these means to foster manufacturing technology and help businesses gain experience, putting them in a better position to bid for contracts around the world. Another example is the South Korean government, which has applied for carbon-trading credits on a case-by-case basis through the Clean Development Mechanism of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This way, it can build solar power plants and cultivate South Korean solar energy unit production at the same time.

The response of the Taiwanese government reflects the general sorry state of affairs faced by most local businesses, whether or not they are working in key sectors in which the nation has particular advantages. More often than not, the government waits for the world market to fatten companies up and then reaps the benefits without having contributed anything.

Three days after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear leak, German Chancellor Angela Merkel ordered a three-month shutdown of seven of the country’s older reactors so that they could undergo thorough safety inspections. However, she failed to listen to what the German people wanted and the price she paid was that her Christian Democratic Union lost control of the big southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, where it had been in government for 58 years.

Baden-Wuerttemberg is now the first German state ever to be governed by the Greens, as senior coalition partner with the Social Democratic Party. Reacting to her party’s win, Greens Co-chairperson Claudia Roth said: “This is a day that has strongly changed the political landscape in Germany.”

Indeed, the German public’s message to Merkel has been strikingly clear-cut, with no room for compromise. Our question to Taiwan’s government today is: Do you plan to take the development of renewable energy seriously or not?

Gavin Lee is a board member of the Taiwan Youth Innovation Tank and a former visiting academic at Harvard University.