In a Heat Wave, Solar Power Comes to the Rescue

Special to Topics Online

For the past three years, exceptionally hot weather in May has placed extreme peak demands on the Taiwan Power Co. grid. This year on May 30, when temperatures soared above 36 degrees Celsius, electricity demand broke an all-time record to reach 36.77GWh (gigawatt hours).

Yet unlike previous years when blistering temperatures and concurrent electricity demand nearly maxed out the system, reserve margins remained at 3.35% – not high by any standard and below the authorized minimum of 6%, but within a tolerable range. A major factor contributing to this improved situation was increased solar power capacity. On that record-setting day and every day since, solar energy has accounted for some 3% of Taipower’s total power requirement.

Taiwan has some 2.1GW (gigawatts) of solar power capacity currently in operation, but this is only the start of the Tsai administration’s plans to build 20GW of solar power capacity by 2025. This effort (see AmCham 2018 Taiwan White Paper) is part of the major transformation of the electricity supply that Taiwan is attempting to carry out as part of its plan to eliminate nuclear power while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear power is to be eliminated completely by 2025, while renewable energy’s share would rise from its current <5% to contribute 20% of Taiwan’s total power generation. Power generated by low-emission, natural gas combined-cycle power plants is due to rise to 50% of the mix, up from the current 35%, and coal-fired generation would drop from its current 45% to 30%.

Progress is being made, and Taiwan is now one of the world’s hottest markets for solar and offshore wind power development, while U.S. natural gas exporters are eagerly eyeing the island as a key market in East Asia. But is this transformation happening fast enough to meet the timeline for denuclearization of the power supply?

Reserve margins are already below 5% during peak hours, and as nuclear power currently supplies some 10% of Taiwan’s total power, failure to achieve any single component of the government’s energy plan could result in acute power shortages. Energy infrastructure often requires years-long timeframes to develop, while the 2025 deadline is little more than seven years away, with little room for error or delay.

Solar power is the low hanging fruit of Taiwan’s electricity transformation, as it’s far easier and cheaper to install than other power sources, but even solar power installations are not happening fast enough to stay on schedule. The current capacity is little more than 10% of the total of 20GW envisioned for 2025. Lack of available land and scant local public support in rural areas where solar is concentrated are key factors contributing to the shortfall, along with government ministry infighting and lack of grid connectivity.

Wind resources in the Taiwan Strait are considered excellent, and over 5.5GW of installed capacity in offshore wind power is planned. But offshore wind turbines are major infrastructure projects with long development timeframes, and reaching the 2025 goal of 3.5GW capacity will require installing hundreds of turbines on 90-meter masts erected on foundations embedded in sandy, earthquake prone seabed. Even wind power developers are concerned about the short timeframe.

Natural gas is another key component to the energy transformation, but once again the country is already falling alarmingly behind schedule in building up the necessary infrastructure to increase imports of LNG (liquefied natural gas). A new LNG receiving terminal will need to be constructed, but so far there has been no agreement on a suitable coastal site.