Renewables Industry Faces Environmentalist Challenges

Environmental activists aim to ensure that Taiwan’s green energy revolution is truly environmentally sustainable. But will their efforts slow down Taiwan’s energy transition?

The fishing industry is generally condemned by environmental organizations, and Greenpeace has often targeted Taiwan’s deep-sea fishing fleet for illegal and unsustainable practices. Yet in Yunlin County, local environmentalists have found common cause with fishing associations in opposing a major renewable energy project – the US$3 billion (NT$87.8 billion), 640-megawatt (MW) Yunlin offshore wind farm.

Developed by a consortium led by German energy firm wpd GmbH, the Yunlin wind farm is one of Taiwan’s largest to date. It was due to begin construction in the spring of this year eight kilometers off the coast of Yunlin County. When completed, it is expected to provide clean power to 450,000 homes while offsetting 916,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.

“The area designated to build the wind turbines is of great importance to the local fishermen, as well as a number of local Taiwanese fish species,” the Environmental Rights Protection Foundation said in a written statement that accused the wind developer of damaging the local ecosystem and killing fish during cable-laying operations, threatening the survival of the critically endangered Chinese White Dolphin, and abusing the fishermen. The fishermen are joined with environmental lawyers and scholars to demand that the construction of the wind farm in their fishing grounds be terminated. 

Wpd came to a settlement with the Yunlin fishing association, but protests ensued from a small group of fishermen who were either left out of the settlement or were dissatisfied with it. This past summer these fishing boats took to the seas to blockade the construction site. The fishermen have since ceased their blockade but continue to protest, and as of the end of September, construction has yet to begin.

Protests have also accompanied the rollout of solar power in Taiwan, with solar developers accused of destroying natural habitats in rural central and southern Taiwan and covering them with dense solar arrays. Opposition was further galvanized by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.’s proposal to clear 230 hectares of forested land in Pingtung County for a solar farm.

In early July, the cabinet-level Council of Agriculture (COA) abruptly announced new rules that require all solar development exceeding two square hectares to gain prior central government approval, putting the brakes on most solar development. Previously the rule only affected projects larger than 30 square hectares.

“The COA July regulations were very shocking,” says Sharon Chen, a solar analyst formerly with EnergyTrend, an affiliate of local analytics firm Trendforce. She estimates that around 500MW of solar development is “completely dead” under the new regulations. EnergyTrend  forecasts solar installations of less than 1.2GW by year’s end, well short of the 2.2GW target. 

Taiwan has set ambitious goals of eliminating nuclear power and curtailing coal in favor of huge increases in renewable energy and natural gas – all by 2025. Renewable energy is expected to generate 20% of Taiwan’s total power needs from 5.7GW of offshore wind and 20GW of solar power. This year marks the first major benchmark for solar installations progress. Before the end of 2020, Taiwan had aimed to have 6.5GW of total solar capacity, as well as substantial additions to its offshore wind sector.

Instead, total solar capacity currently stands at 4.4GW, according to Taiwan Power Co. (Taipower) statistics – over 2,000 MWs short of the goal for the year. Taiwan will need to install 15GWs of solar power in the next four years to meet the target – more than 3GWs per year – requiring at least 20,000 square hectares for development. With Taiwan’s factories and barn roofs already largely covered with solar panels, finding the space may not be easy.

Offshore wind development also looks to be delayed, after encountering several regulatory and other obstacles (see the accompanying story for more details).

Not every government ministry seems fully committed to the 2025 target. “While we are all working toward it, 2025 is not set in stone. Maybe it will be 2026 or 2027,” COA Minister Chen Chi-chung said at a Legislative Yuan hearing on July 14.

Complicating the situation is the government’s additional objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. Emissions-free nuclear power currently supplies 12% of Taiwan’s electricity needs, according to Taipower. Yet strong opposition in Taiwan to nuclear power means this portion of the energy portfolio will need to be replaced.

The 2025 energy transition goals would also see coal’s share of power generation reduced from around 48% to 30% through the retirement of several coal-fired power plants. Much of the coal-fired capacity is expected to be replaced by cleaner natural gas, whose proportion of the power generation mix is set to rise from around 38% currently to 50%. But this increase is contingent upon its own infrastructure expansion, which is likewise facing challenges (more in the accompanying story on natural gas).

If Taiwan fails to meet the green energy and natural gas goals while facing a hard deadline for eliminating nuclear power, it will either face power shortages or be forced to continue operating coal-fired power plants that were set to be retired. Taipower is aware of this possibility. While striving to replace coal-burning units with natural gas generators at its most controversial power plant – the enormous 5.5GW Taichung power station – it is keeping these units on standby.

Unsustainable solar

To realize its renewable energy goals, Taiwan offers a relatively high Feed-in Tariff (FiT) – currently NT$3.87 per kilowatt hour (kWh) – for largescale ground-mounted solar farms. It has also designated over 8,000 hectares of land as available for solar development without requiring an onerous Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or – prior to the rule changes – central government approval. This practice set off a frenzy of development, particularly in rural areas that have both available space and grid access, such as in Pingtung County.

The black-faced spoonbill is one of several endangered species potentially threatened by solar development. Photo: Wikipedia

According to solar analyst Sharon Chen, the smaller EPC (engineering, procurement, and construction) firms are the worst violators of environmental rules. “The small EPCs don’t have any capabilities to solve the land issues or environmental issues; that’s why they often use land that isn’t clearly designated – it happened in Pingtung quite a lot,” she says. In her view, they are motivated to maximize their return on investment by building cheaply, without taking environmental protection into account. They also saturate the available space with panels, resulting in habitat loss for critically endangered species such as leopard cats and black-faced spoonbills, she says.

In response to the land issues, developers have adopted techniques for floating solar installations, encouraged by a higher FiT of NT$4.27/kWh. But even this effort has generated controversy, with developers once again criticized for oversaturating retention ponds and aquaculture sites with panels, disrupting migratory birds, and impacting marine life.

With the 2025 deadline looming, environmentalists and solar developers, as well as Taiwan’s solar manufacturers (for whom the domestic market accounts for 90% of sales), are all seeking a feasible way forward.

“There are 300,000 hectares of uncultivated farmland in Taiwan – please give just us 20,000 hectares,” Sam Hong, president of the Taiwan Photovoltaic Association and chairman of its largest solar manufacturer, United Renewable Energy, was quoted as saying to the media in early September.

Integrated solar power producer New Green Power offers a glimpse of how solar power can be developed to the satisfaction of all stakeholders. Founder Andy Tang says that local environmentalists were initially resistant to New Green Energy’s proposal for a 35MW floating solar farm on retention ponds in rural Chiayi County. The company decided to consult closely not only with local community activists but also professors and other experts in the environmental and biodiversity fields.

“We spent lots of time planning how to preserve the scenery, which trees to keep, and how best to integrate the site into the natural setting,” he says. The project specifications allowed them to cover 70% of the water surface with panels, “but after consulting with experts we decided to use only 39% of the surface, so we actually left a lot more for the environment.” The goal, he says, was not just to generate clean power but also to preserve the area for migratory birds, including the black-faced spoonbill.

In response to a request from local residents, the company also committed to transforming the area into an accessible eco-tourist destination. “Now people can come and see that solar power and the environment can co-exist, and the locals are very happy,” Tang says. He concedes that the broader agenda increased the cost of the project but says “it still offered a sufficient return on investment.”

Tang joins a growing chorus calling for greater leadership on the part of the government. “To get to 20GW, the policy has to be modified because we – the developers and investors, the environmentalists, and all stakeholders – need to have a consensus on achieving the goal,” he says. “Otherwise everyone will just fight each other.”

“There is not yet a government leader who can make this happen,” he says.

The Yunlin offshore wind farm controversy perhaps offers a ray of hope. When the dispute reached a crescendo this summer, Deputy Minister of Economic Affairs Tseng Wen-sheng traveled repeatedly to Yunlin County to personally mediate a compromise. While the debate over Yunlin isn’t entirely resolved, the fishermen’s blockade has ended, and both wpd and the government express optimism that a solution is imminent, enabling the project to resume.

With effective engagement and leadership, perhaps Taiwan can ultimately realize its goal of being a leader in renewable energy and greenhouse gas mitigation.