Waiting for an energy breakthrough

By Norman Yin 殷乃平  / 

Wed, Jun 11, 2014 - Page 8

This year, an unprecedented 50,000 people attended an anti-nuclear protest, thanks to the Sunflower movement and the year-end legislative elections. Meanwhile, Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) announced on June 1 that it was initiating summer electricity prices: Households using an average of 500kWh of electricity per month will see their electricity bills rise by NT$204 (US$7). However, the more important question is, should the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant be scrapped, what then for the nation’s energy supply policy?

Academia Sinica President Wong Chi-huey (翁啟惠) last month said that despite the lack of consensus about the power plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City, the public cannot reject nuclear power with no alternatives to choose from. Of all renewable energies, solar power technology was advancing the fastest and Taiwan needed to do more about this, he said.

Vice Minister of Economic Affairs Woody Duh (杜紫軍) responded by saying the technology and cost of renewables were still developing and to pursue these technologies now would not be good for the consumer.

With solar energy, for example, he said, conversion efficiency was increasing every year, adding that if the technology was installed throughout the nation in one go, it would not be long before the technology became outdated and the equipment uncompetitive.

Duh’s response made me realize why the nation’s green energy policy is going nowhere fast: Officials are always waiting for the next technological development, and so much is said, while little is actually done.

All the public hears about is what is to replace nuclear or thermal power stations.

Former minister of economic affairs Shih Yen-shiang (施顏祥) said that if Taiwan abandons nuclear power, electricity bills would increase by 40 percent. Amid the tug-of-war over the unfinished plant, electricity prices have become a deciding factor.

At present, Taipower’s electricity generation looks like this: Thermal plants consistently account for between 70 and 75 percent of total electricity generation, while nuclear power supplies 20 to 25 percent. Hydraulic power accounts for less than 5 percent of the total, while renewables such as solar and wind power only provide 2 to 3 percent.

The company relies predominantly on thermal power generation by burning coal, petroleum and natural gas, the prices for which have been increasing over the past few years. To reflect the resulting rise in costs, Taipower has increased its own prices.

It is estimated that the cost of nuclear power per kilowatt-hour is about NT$1.68, which is lower than the cost of either coal, fuel oil and natural gas at NT$1.76, NT$2.08 and NT$2.23 respectively. If nuclear power did not involve the safety considerations that it does, it would clearly be the optimum choice.

The Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997. There are 184 signatory nations, including China, which only signed on June 2. Since then, international greenhouse gas emissions have been capped, and a carbon trading system established. The agreement requires that all industrialized signatory nations limit their greenhouse gas emissions, collectively reducing them by 2010 to 5.2 percent less than 1990 levels.

However, Taiwan has not signed that protocol, and although it has pledge to adhere to it, it is not subject to those limits, so there is no immediate crisis, especially since the US sits right at the top of the list of carbon emission offenders.

Nevertheless, global warming is becoming increasingly serious, and since every member of the global village is in this together, Taiwan will be affected at some point. If it continues to burn so many fossil fuels, even if the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant goes into operation, the next decade will see its carbon emissions rise from the 75.3 million tonnes in 2009 to 194 million tonnes in 2019.

According to Kyoto, the cost of annual carbon emissions will exceed NT$10 billion, which will eventually be passed on to the consumer. No matter what Taipower does now, it is already too late.

The trend in industrialized nations’ energy policy has been for a green, sustainable and diversified model of operation and distribution.

Under former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), the Ministry of Education was given funds to install solar panels in schools, an initiative that unfortunately never really took off due to the lack of supporting measures.

Now, some are encouraging the government to install solar panels in all public buildings and, supported by bank loans, the cost of installation would be offset by the savings made on electricity bills. However, the government has yet to respond.

What other options does Taiwan have if it is to wean itself off thermal power electricity generation and avoid the potential dangers of nuclear power altogether? The situation is in flux, and if policymakers seek to close the nation off to what is happening outside, Taiwan will fall behind the times and leave the public to foot the bill.

Norman Yin is a professor of financial studies at National Chengchi University.

Translated by Paul Cooper