TAIPEI: Taiwan’s energy supply is in a transitional phase at the moment as the government attempts to shift supplies away from coal-fired power stations and nuclear power and towards more green energy sources.
It is an admirable goal and also an extremely ambitious one. As of 2014, just 1.7 percent of Taiwan’s total energy consumption came from renewable sources, with biomass and waste burning accounting for 1.2 percent of that. In contrast, coal accounted for 29.2 percent and oil a whopping 48.5 percent.
Taiwan is not rich in fossil fuels itself, so it is therefore dependent on coal and oil imports for much of its energy. This means that much of Taiwan’s energy is expensive and insecure, as it relies on overseas supplies. And then, of course, there is the huge environmental impact these coal-fueled power stations have.
A few weeks back I wrote about the Taichung Power Plant (台中發電廠). It is the largest coal-fired power station on earth and also the single largest emitter of carbon dioxide anywhere on the planet, producing 40 million tons of CO2 every year. That’s about the same amount as is produced by Switzerland… the whole country of Switzerland!
Taiwan has five coal-fired power stations like this. Two of the others, Mailiao Power Plant (麥寮電廠) in Yunlin and Hsinta Power Plant (興達發電廠) in Kaohsiung have about three-quarters of the capacity, and therefore also the emissions, of the Taichung Plant.
Taiwan is also home to five diesel-fueled power plants, a further ten which burn natural gas, one which uses mixed fuels and another which uses fuel oil. The combined impact of these plants on the environment is undoubtedly catastrophic. And yet without them, much of Taiwan would plunge into darkness.
Despite the obvious impact of these fossil fuel plants, much of the public and political focus of Taiwan’s energy policy has been on nuclear power. There are four nuclear power plants in Taiwan and the current DPP administration has pledged to close them all.
It has proved a popular policy with voters at the ballot box in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011. The question is, if Taiwan is going to abandon nuclear power altogether and has pledged to cut coal-fired power supply too, what is going to take up the slack?
While the obvious answer to that question is renewable energy, it is unrealistic in the short term for renewable sources to fill such a huge proportion of Taiwan’s energy supply. Taiwan, therefore, needs to focus on developing a balanced energy supply and this means making some difficult decisions.
The role of renewables
Firstly, there is no doubt that renewable energies should be front and center of any new energy strategy. They are popular with voters, kind to Taiwan’s already suffering environment, offer broader economic benefits, and a good fit given Taiwan’s geographic circumstances.