Taiwan is beautiful — no doubt about it. In Taipei, the streets are clean, the skyline is gorgeous and the subway is world-class. The coastline is easily accessible and mountains can be seen in the distance. The people are hardworking, successful and busy. Every luxury known to humankind is available and people live on their smartphones. As an American visiting for the first time, here are some things I learned about the country.
First, people from Taiwan and America love freedom and democracy and have for many years. When we defeated Japan in 1945, Taiwan was freed from Japanese rule. In 1949, the Republic of China relocated from China to Taiwan, an island only 161km from the mainland, but even today, China’s presence looms large to leaders in Taiwan.
For me as an American, I knew none of this. The rest of the people I met in Taipei, seemed to be living their lives not thinking a thing about their jealous cousin across the Strait either.
Taiwan has a modest army of about 180,000, and supposedly has no nuclear or chemical weapons. For that reason the US’ friendship is “crucial to their existence,” according to one government leader I spoke with.
Similarly, without Taiwan’s advanced semiconductors and microchips, life in the US as we know it would probably screech to a halt, far worse than anything seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is not just the semiconductors and chips Taiwan makes, as it is the US’ ninth-largest trading partner, with the US importing some US$60 billion worth of goods. Not bad for a country one-fourth the size of Georgia, my home state.
Second, Taiwan is ambitious. Its GDP per capita far exceeds its mainland neighbor. The country has implemented technology from around the world making its tiny island a better place to live.
Its grid is getting cleaner with offshore wind and solar power. It has a trash collection system that is yielding more and more recycling. It is composting at scale with part of the waste used to feed the many swine in the country. Blocks and bricks are being made from the ash after the trash has been incinerated.
Because Taiwan is a small place, taking care of the space is paramount to Taiwanese.
Unlike China, Taiwan has a reputation of respecting intellectual property rights and intentionally providing a transparent society. Science and technology are thriving, with Taiwan becoming an increasingly important part of the global supply chain.
Probably most important, Taiwanese are a freedom-loving people advancing democratic values. This applies even to religion, as one can see with all the temples and churches there. China, conversely, allows few of those freedoms.
Americans like myself benefit from seeing this firsthand, and it will only further cement our strong friendship as more Americans become familiar with this key island nation.
Third, Taiwanese, like so many Asians that I meet, are gracious and humble. That teachability will work to their collective benefit. They have set big goals for their country’s energy portfolio, electric transportation and environmental aspirations, and much more. Taipower, the government-owned utility, has a robust plan to provide all the power the nation needs. Like many US states, Taiwan has set aggressive goals for electric vehicles and renewable energy.
However, Taiwan’s economy is dominated by small to medium-sized enterprises, often family-run, which means major wind or solar firms have to cobble together several separate deals that are still smaller than the ones they can win in countries such as Japan that have large, well-capitalized firms.
Smaller deals mean more money per megawatt, but energy usage is certain to grow.
When the US-China trade war started around 2016, hundreds of firms moved out of China and back to Taiwan to build new factories, meaning the amount of power they are projected to use in the coming decade is much greater than before. It is yet to be seen how the ruling party will address this as national election campaigning heats up, with the opposition parties all taking a more open-minded approach to the use of nuclear power.
Without new and existing nuclear power, the grid would probably become more erratic, and Taiwan’s reliance on imported liquified natural gas, with only a 10-day supply, puts its entire economy at risk.
Nuclear reactors run for 18 months 24/7 without refueling, and advanced nuclear technology can supply homegrown power to keep microchip and semiconductor plants running — and allow for additional growth.
Twenty-three million people live on the small island, and collectively they have 14 million scooters, and 8 million cars — most of them with internal-combustion engines. Back of the envelope math says that by the time these vehicles are electrified in 2040, Taiwan would need more than triple the power it currently produces. To put it in context, that is more than 11 nuclear reactors like the ones just built in Georgia. I have every confidence that Taiwan will figure it out.
It has been my privilege to spend a week in the country, and I hope more Americans travel to Taiwan to see the treasure that it is, and the beacon of freedom that shines brightly here from the heart of the people.
Tim Echols is a US clean energy expert and cofounder of the Hydrogen Energy Braintrust.
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