The media have in the past few months frequently covered the destruction of rural landscapes due to ground-based photovoltaic systems development. The images on the news were truly shocking, and the possible ecological impact is even more worrying.
It is obvious that the government’s policy regarding renewable energy development must be adjusted significantly.
From a policy planning perspective, there is no problem with incentivizing the development of renewable energy generation, and the government’s focus on photovoltaics and wind energy is reasonable, considering Taiwan’s natural environment.
The problem lies deeper, in the details of the policy and its implementation. At the early stages of policy planning, errors might have occurred due to an insufficient understanding of the situation, which might cause projects to fail.
It is only natural that policies must be reviewed and changed, and concerning photovoltaics, there are several points that should be improved.
First, the ratio between solar panels installed on the ground and on rooftops should be adjusted. The initial policy goal was to establish a total photovoltaic capacity of 20 gigawatts (GW) by 2025, with ground installations accounting for 17GW and rooftop installations for 3GW.
However, the goal for rooftop installations was reached quickly, and the ratio was adjusted to 14GW for ground installations and 6GW for rooftops, with ample potential for further development.
First, factory and residential rooftop units account for only a small share of rooftop solar panels, and there is also a lot of potential for more installations on public building rooftops, even though those were in the past few years strongly promoted by the policy.
Second, compared with ground installations, rooftop solar panels have several benefits and should have been promoted more strongly. For example, in Taiwan’s sunny and rainy climate, solar panels on rooftops can also provide heat insulation and reduce the risk of rainwater leakage.
In contrast, even the poorest soil can be used for agriculture. As Taiwan is not self-sufficient in the production of food crops, but possesses excellent agricultural technologies, using land for photovoltaics is not suitable in the nation.
Third, although it is difficult to promote the installation of rooftop units on residential buildings, the government should more actively work toward that goal, as it has a greater policy value.
At the early stages of the policy, rooftop units were mainly installed on public buildings, due to a less complicated ownership structure of the buildings and the willingness of public institutions to comply with government policy.
The fragmented private ownership of residential buildings makes the implementation of the policy more complicated and costly, and many private businesses are less willing to invest.
However, residential rooftop photovoltaics allow people to be part of the nation’s renewable energy development, helping the government to raise public willingness for environmental protection.
If households cooperate and jointly install solar panels on the rooftop of their building, that would create additional social value.
If they then cooperate with the residents of other buildings, connecting the rooftop units on multiple buildings to create a “community power plant,” such a development would contribute greatly to solving the nation’s energy problems, and consolidate communities.
Promoting rooftop units would achieve both, but implementing a policy with that in mind would require a more detailed policy design.
Based on experience, at least two mechanisms must be established. First, the bulk purchase price for energy generated by residential rooftop photovoltaics must be raised, with higher prices paid for systems that involve more units and households, to encourage more people to participate.
Second, creative measures must be developed to encourage public participation, for example, by categorizing community power plants as “green power suppliers” and helping them connect with corporate electricity users in need of “green” power.
Local companies could through this model integrate with local communities and fulfill their corporate social responsibility.
Although there is global agreement over the need for developing renewable energy, promoting it is a complex social project, and rooftop photovoltaics are a good example.
In the past, the government was often criticized for relying on public efforts, without offering cooperation or helping integrate different social sectors to reach a goal.
Hopefully the energy, agriculture, ecology and cultural sectors will this time work together and help the nation reach its policy goals in a truly “green spirit.”
Tseng Shu-cheng is a professor at Tainan National University of the Arts and a former deputy minister of the National Development Council.
Translated by Lin Lee-kai
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