Wed, Aug 07, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Taiwan’s solar energy failing to shine

Taiwan is blessed with sunshine and many other renewable resources, but its green energy industries are locked in a quagmire of government inertia

By Sam Sky Wild  /  Contributing reporter

Solar panels are seen outside a government facility in Taitung County.

Photo: Sam Sky Wild

Typhoon Soulik was a timely reminder of nature’s awesome power: Hurricane-strength winds tore across the nation, Taipei was flooded and 800,000 homes were yanked from the national grid.

The extreme weather connected to global warming remains pegged to rising carbon emissions, and carbon-intensive energy is at the center of the debate: UN statistics show that humans produce a staggering 43.1 percent of global CO2 emissions through coal-fired generation.

Amid a torrent of hard facts, Taiwan’s political leaders stand accused of failing to confront the worsening environmental storm, while further UN figures indicate that Taiwan’s per capita carbon emissions are now the 27th highest in the world.

In 2008, early into his presidency, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) pledged to “preserve the natural environment.” Five-and-half years into his administration, figures reveal that little has changed with Taiwan continuing to generate the vast majority of its electricity through carbon-intensive methods: In 2011 the combustion of fossil fuels provided 78.6 percent of its electrical power with nuclear power driving 16.7 percent of the nation’s grid.

Lagging behind

Publicly accessible Bureau of Energy figures show that the country is still up to 98 percent dependent on imported fuels to match its substantial appetite for energy resources — a figure unchanged for more than two decades.

While many other industrialized nations may have embraced low-carbon energy sources — namely wind, solar, geothermal and to some extent hydropower — Taiwan, it would appear, is lagging behind its developed nation competitors.

Germany, for example, currently generates three percent of its total energy needs through solar power alone and produces 20 percent through renewable sources.

Repeated attempts by the Taipei Times to confirm the exact breakdown for sustainable energy, source by source, within Taiwan has met with official indifference. Representatives of the power-providing monopoly, Taiwan Power Company (Taipower, 台電), stated that it “has no relevant information” on the matter, while their counterparts at the Bureau of Energy also failed to provide any data.

The most recent available Taipower statistics indicate, however, that in 2011 Taiwan — blessed with more than twice the sunshine of Germany — met only 3.56 percent of its electricity needs through all its sustainable energy sources combined.

At the pleasantly-named Green+ Together 2013 Taiwan Sustainability Summit in June, a presidential aide quoted Ma saying that “[he] hoped that by the year 2025 the percentage of renewable energy rises to 9.7 percent.”

Lofty words, but the situation remains somewhat bleaker. Official figures appear to indicate that, in 2011, much of Taiwan’s “green” energy was actually generated through “biomass.” This generously-termed “sustainable” energy source includes the burning of fuel sources such as household trash and industrial/agricultural byproducts which can release high levels of global warming gases as well as other dangerous substances, including carcinogenic dioxins.

For 50-year-old Pittsburgh native Robert Lasure, former director of a small-scale firm installing solar panels in southeast Taiwan, the key stumbling block to sustainable energy in Taiwan remains pricing.

“I think subsidized power provided by Taipower is problematic — the Legislative Yuan is still pumping money into it and this means for us to sell solar to the home owner [is] not cost effective,” he says.

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