Taiwan’s new government expands solar development

This is what the newly inaugurated administration of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) President Tsai Ing-wen is hoping will happen, as Minister of Economic Affairs Lee Chih-kung (???) announced at a press conference on May 25 that it would open up 10,000 hectares of agricultural land for solar development.

“After everything is settled, the combined 10,000 hectares of land could have an installed capacity of more than 6,000 megawatts as part of the solar power system, which is able to generate more than 3 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per hour,” he was quoted as saying in the local media.

For years, Taiwan’s solar industry players, green energy advocates, and global warming Cassandras have been pushing the government to open more lands for solar development. The former administration of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Ma Ying-jeou was accused of paying lip service to solar and other renewable energy development, while putting numerous obstacles in the way of actual development. Now, with the newly inaugurated administration of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) President Tsai Ing-wen, a staunch advocate of renewable energy, optimism is high that Taiwan will actually live up to its promise of solar development.

Taiwan, a small, tear-drop shaped island 180 kilometers off the coast of China’s Fujian Province, is the world’s second largest producer of solar cells, shipping 10.6 gigawatts (GW) of cells in 2015 – nearly a fifth of the world total of 55GW, and is also one of the leading solar wafer and module makers. Yet, paradoxically, Taiwan’s own solar installations market remains woefully underdeveloped, with accumulated installations adding up to less than 800 megawatts (MW), out of a total power generating capacity of 40.79GW. According to as state-owned power monopoly Taiwan Power Company (Taipower)’s 2015 Sustainability Report, nearly three quarters of the 219,224 gigawatt hours (GWh) generated on the Taiwan’s power grid – either directly by Taipower of by Independent Power Producers (IPP) – were from fossil fuels, largely coal, while nuclear generated another 19%, with the remainder mostly generated by hydro.

Several factors contribute to Taiwan’s lack of solar power installations, including low returns on solar investments, and bureaucratic red tape, but foremost among them is the lack of available land. At 36,000 square kilometers, Taiwan is smaller than the Netherlands but is home to more than 23 million people. Moreover, over two thirds of the landmass is rugged mountains, with the island rising from sea level to nearly 4,000 meters in elevation in little more than 50 kilometers. Tectonically active and prone to violent typhoons and landslides, the mountainous interior is virtually off-limits to all development, including solar.

Corrine Lin, solar analyst for local analytics firm Trendforce, sees the availability of land as the biggest obstacle preventing wider uptake of solar energy in Taiwan.

Enabling PV in Taiwan

The Ma administration offered a number of initiatives aimed at overcoming these hurdles, such as the “Million Solar Roofs” program, which has seen many large scale solar power plants installed on the rooftops of factories, schools, and government buildings, such as the 21MW Sungen Solar Power Plant, built by AUOptronics atop its factory located in central Taiwan.

KH Chen, president and founder of Taiwan’s largest solar power provider Sinogreenergy Co., says that the plan to focus on rooftop installations has already run into problems, however, as “there aren’t enough available roofs to develop.” Many of Taiwan’s industrial and commercial buildings already have rooftop installations, while Taiwan’s mostly multistory private residences are seen as impractical for rooftop installations due to complex ownership issues.

“The government knows that there aren’t enough available rooftops, so they have to release more space for the solar installations,”Sinogreenenergy’s Chen said.

Consequently, last year the Council of Agriculture (COA) under the Ministry of Interior last year released about 1,200 hectares of idle agricultural land for solar development, enough for some 1.24GW of solar power installation. The government is working on alternative agricultural practices to sweeten the deal for the island’s farmers by developing methods that allow the land to be used simultaneously for both agriculture and solar PV, such as growing mushrooms under the panels, or coffee plants between them.

The announcement of the release of 10,000 hectares to solar development is evidence that the new Tsai administration seems to be making good on its promise to substantially ramp up the share of power generation in renewables. The DPP has long been critical of the previous administration for dragging its feet in renewable energy development, and Tsai campaigned on a promise of 20GW of installed solar capacity by the end of her second term. Inaugurated only on May 20, the new administration seems to be off to a good start.