Referendum Threatens Taiwan’s Energy Transition Goals

For the December 18 referendum, voters will need to choose between increasing Taiwan’s natural gas capacity and protecting the Datan algal reefs. Photo: Martti Chen

Two questions appearing on the ballot for Taiwan’s December referendum are expected to put up major barriers to the island’s plans to transform its energy mix if they pass.

On December 18, Taiwan citizens will be voting on four referendum proposals: one to ban pork containing ractopamine, one to combine future referendum votes with national elections, one to protect the algal reefs of Datan borough, and one to restart the mothballed nuclear plant in Lungmen.

According to an opinion poll conducted by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD) released on October 26, all four referendum questions are slated to pass. Of the four, two are likely to cause the government major headaches regarding Taiwan’s energy transition policy.

The proposed third liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal on the coast of Taoyuan’s Datan Borough is a crucial piece of infrastructure for the administration’s plans to phase out nuclear power by 2025 and make up for the loss of electricity with increased gas and renewable energy sources. Taiwan’s two existing LNG receiving terminals are already stretched to capacity, leaving its LNG power plants “like guns without bullets” if more receiving infrastructure cannot be built.

“If we cannot go ahead, units 8 and 9 of the Datan power plant will be without gas,” Deputy Minister of Economic Affairs Tseng Wen-sheng told reporters at an October 12 press conference. “13.7 billion kilowatt-hours of power per year – equivalent to 5 million tons of coal – will be missing from our power supply.”

Appealing to environmentalists to “think holistically,” Tseng warned that the results would not only be a setback for Taiwan’s decarbonization goals but could also potentially affect Taiwan’s overall energy stability.

“We have heard the environmentalists’ concerns and pushed the third LNG terminal out 1.2 kilometers away from shore, at the cost of NT$15 billion and adding 2.5 years to the completion of the project,” said Tseng.

However, it appears the Ministry’s repeated appeals to the public have not found favor. The TFD opinion poll shows that 47.7% of Taiwanese are voting to protect the algal reefs, with 29.6% voting against, and 22.8% remaining undecided.

Another referendum item with the potential to jeopardize the administration’s energy policy is the question of whether to resume the deactivated Lungmen’s Fourth Nuclear Plant (NPP4) project. The administration has long maintained that restarting NPP4 not only contradicts its “nuclear-free homeland” policy but is also impossible to do safely.

Construction of the plant began in 1999 and was supposed to be completed by 2004. But stop-start construction plagued the project before it was finally mothballed by the then-KMT administration in 2014.

“We cannot solve the problems we will face 10 years from now with technology that is already two decades old,” Tseng said at the press conference.

The TFD poll shows the proposal to reopen NPP4 passing, although by far closer margins. 46.7% of those polled favored a reopening of the plant, while 41.7% were against, with 11.5% having no opinion. A total of 1,075 residents participated in the poll.

Jerry Liu, the director of international affairs of the New Power Party, says the deciding factor for the referendum might well be turnout.

“It’s interesting how quickly political issues burn out in the Taiwanese news cycle,” he notes. “For a while, the algal reef issue was unavoidable. But the public has long moved on.”

Originally slated to take place in August, the referendum was delayed due to Taiwan’s COVID-19 outbreak this summer.

Liu believes the referendum would have passed handily had the vote taken place as planned in August. But fewer Taiwanese are likely to turn up for the December vote, he predicts.

“It’s going to be cold, and there will probably be some new political issue to care about,” he says.

However, Liu believes that despite not polling as well as the algal reef referendum question, the pro-nuclear question could attract a more substantial turnout. “It is a more well-established issue in Taiwanese politics,” he says.

Pro-nuclear activist Huang Shih-shiu initiated the “Nuclear to Renewables” referendum of 2018, which passed with 59.49% of voters in favor of repealing the planned end of nuclear power stations. However, although the referendum theoretically upended the nuclear-free homeland law, it failed to have an actual effect on the timetable for nuclear closure in the government’s energy plan, as nuclear reactors shuttered one by one due to passive technical factors such as lack of storage space for spent fuel rods.

By presenting a more straightforward, affirmative goal for the new referendum, Huang hopes it would be harder for the government to ignore. He estimates that it would take two to three years to start the first reactor and four to five years to start the second.

More importantly, Huang believes that restarting NPP4 would be “the first key” to turning the tide of nuclear power in Taiwan.

“If we can extend the tenure for the second and third nuclear plants and start the fourth, that’s 20% of Taiwan’s electricity needs taken care of – 25% if we have the guts to restart the first nuclear plant,” says Huang.