The debate over the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City (新北市), has resurfaced.
At the time of the first National Energy Conference in 1998, anti-nuclear sentiment was at a high point. Then-premier Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) sought to appease this by announcing that nuclear energy was to be the government’s last resort and it would work to develop renewable energy sources by investing NT$10 billion (US$335 million at current exchange rates) over a period of five years.
However, at the time, although the anti-nuclear movement had cause, it did not have any persuasive evidence that a nuclear disaster could happen, and that remained the case until the occurrence of the Tohoku earthquake two years ago, and the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster that it caused in Japan.
From a purely economic perspective the movement had no viable alternative to offer and the renewable energy technologies industry, still not mature, had little to bring to the table except hope. Nevertheless, following Siew’s announcement of the government’s intention to divert more resources into the research and development of renewable energy sources, and with government effort during the intervening years, the nation’s solar power industry now plays a decisive role in the global supply chain and its production costs are falling.
Currently, installing a solar power system in Taiwan costs about NT$60,000 to NT$80,000 for every kilowatt it produces. According to test data from around the nation, the savings in electricity bills due to such a system, calculated at a rate of NT$4 per unit of electricity over the 25 years of its operational life, would be anywhere between NT$90,000 and NT$140,000, and would more than pay off the initial installation costs.
For the first time, solar power is economically viable without government subsidy: It has reached the stage of grid parity, at which the costs of an alternative energy source are consistently equal to, or less than, drawing electricity from the national grid.
According to Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) data, the state-owned company supplies electricity to about 4.5 million residential household or business premises, with customers paying an average of NT$4 per unit of electricity. The cost of installing solar power electricity generation equipment would actually be lower, averaged over time, than buying electricity from Taipower.
Government officials say that solar energy is unstable and inconsistent, but this is to be expected until — probably 10 years from now — it is in widespread use, defined as providing more than 3 percent of the total electricity supply.
The government should spend that decade installing micro-grids, including electricity storage facilities, throughout the nation. There is also adequate space for installing equipment on roofs: All the government need do is amend the law and have smart meters installed.
If the effect of potential electricity shortages of post-nuclear energy is to be lowered, all that is needed is for peak loads to be reduced, for which air conditioners are the main culprits.
With solar energy — for which the peak production months are those when demand for air conditioning is at its highest — the solution to the peak load problem is simple: To produce the 2700 megawatt output expected from the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant would only require 1 million billed customers, not even a quarter of those grid parity customers, to use solar energy systems. With solar power grid parity there will be no shortage of electricity, even without the fourth plant.
Huang Bin-juine is the director of the New Energy Center and a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Paul Cooper