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Solar Energy Utilization: The Taiwan Perspective

As an island in the Pacific Ocean located in the ‘sunbelt’ region, Taiwan is geographically blessed, technologically strong and has in place suitable policies to fully utilize these rich sources of energy. Hampered by a lack of conventional energy resources, the utilization of solar energy is indispensible in Taiwan. By analyzing the three elements of the energy framework, Taiwan could reduce the very high levels of energy importation by refining the program of subsidies and directed policies, increasing the rate of solar technology deployment and making better use of the land available.

By Dino Ponnampalam

 

 

Solar energy is a very unique and abundant energy prospect, and exploitation of this energy source offers a tantalizing peek at a future where our energy is derived from clean renewable sources rather than from polluting carbon-based energy sources. 

There are a multitude of reasons as to why the utilization of solar energy is quite appealing, ranging from the fact that it is a clean renewable source to being practically pollution-free, but the one key reason is that enough sunlight reaches the earth in a single hour to power the demands of the world for an entire year. On a yearly basis, this becomes a considerable amount of free energy; expressing this numerically, the earth requires 500 Exajoules (EJ) per year to power our societies but absorbs 3,850,000 EJ per year. Clearly, the inference is that solar energy is a source that could satisfy the energy needs of the whole world many times over; we receive far more than what is required, an indication of the benefit of harvesting solar energy to power our cities and lifestyles especially in places that are energy-poor but insolation-rich, such as in Taiwan.

Taiwan is not rich in conventional energy resources and has to import more than 99% of her energy needs. However, Taiwan is blessed with an abundance of natural energy resources. As a subtropical island in the Pacific Ocean, located at latitude 23° N (within the boundaries of the Sunbelt Region) and longitude 121° E, subjected to the rattles of the Ring of Fire, Taiwan is spoilt for choice when considering what alternative options could meet her energy demands; in addition to solar energy, biomass energy and wind power, Taiwan is also fortunate in having a considerable geothermal and marine resource. This article will focus solely on how solar energy technology could be adopted in Taiwan to harvest this bountiful free energy from the sun.

 

Taiwan’s Unique Position

 

Taiwan, one of the Four Asian Dragons, underwent a period of rapid industrialization that began in the 1960s. Not being rich in conventional energy supplies resulted in a high level of importation (a fact reflected in the very high energy import level of over 90% over the decades), a figure that is still being sustained. This is obviously an issue of economic issue and a security issue for Taiwan, being so dependent on external factors (foreign market forces or foreign events, for example) to power her society. According to information from the Bureau of Energy (BoE), a bureau within the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA), the government’s energy costs (servicing this imported energy) in 2010 totalled NT$1.4 trillion, while the government’s expense budget for the same year totalled NT$1.7 trillion. Some might say that when the cost servicing imported energy is fairly similar to the amount a country spends on her citizens, then things are a bit perverse. Therefore, being energy-independent is a clear economic argument. Thankfully, the government has begun to pursue clean energy technology as a means to gain energy-independence and indirectly, lower this monstrous bill.

Another bonus of introducing clean technology to the energy mix, in addition to reducing the energy bill, is a reduction in pollution. One remnant of the high economic growth period in Taiwan was that many cities had high levels of pollution; fortunately, the situation has progressively improved over the years but there is room for improvement; the cost of cleaning up the environment is dwarfed by the benefits obtained from such an environment.

Be it for economic reasons or for environmental reasons, the case for a switch to clean energy is exceptionally strong and Taiwan is indeed in a unique position in which to harness this resource. To achieve this, a framework that is underpinned by the elements of strategy, policy, and technology is required. By understanding each part and how to integrate all three, the energy framework can be implemented to maximize the exploitation of natural energy resources according to the specific location, and in the case of this article, Taiwan.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Figure 1 shows the constituent elements of an energy framework and the interlinked nature of the three elements.

 This article features the trinity of policy, technology, and strategy, providing an overview of what Taiwan has done, is doing, and could do to better integrate this technology into her energy mix. The article will feature photovoltaic cells from a deployment point-of-view instead of the finance of technology of solar energy.

 

Policy

 

The government has constructed policy in the area of solar energy to include solar water heater collectors and solar Photovoltaic (PV) cells, offering subsidies for installation as well as policy guidelines for the future. This article features the policies connected to PV.

In terms of policy, the government published in 2006 three guidelines on the direction of research and development. These main thrusts of these guidelines are as follows:

.To develop low-cost mass production techniques of highly efficient solar cells;

.To incorporate PV cells in the construction industry; and

.To stimulate the integration of PV-infused materials into everyday structures.

These guidelines were published to ensure that Taiwan utilizes her manufacturing advantage and, being constrained by available land, focuses on creatively adopting PV technology to better harness solar energy. Developing mass production techniques would, through economies of scale, lower the manufacturing costs of producing solar cells; the bugbears of solar cell manufacturing are the efficiency rate and the high cost of the solar cell. So reducing one issue will invariably make the technology more attractive.

Integrating PV into construction materials will allow the construction industry to build projects that might naturally generate a portion of electricity to meet the demands of the building and perhaps, even allow a degree of solar architecture to be employed; not too dissimilar to our ancestors who built buildings to maximize the amount of sunlight it received, or to the wisdom of Socrates, who stated that an ideal home was one that was cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Using passive solar technologies and passive cooling, a building could be oriented so as to maximize the benefits. In a country with a lot of available land, this might be possible but for Taiwan, with its 23 million inhabitants on a landmass of 36,000 square kilometers and with two-thirds of this landmass being mountainous and unsuitable for habitation, this is not so easy. As such, creative solutions are required. One such solution is to integrate photovoltaic material into construction material; doing so allows for building projects to be equipped with the facility to generate electricity for the use of the building. For example, constructing PV-infused facades will allow for energy to be generated that might power the air-conditioning system or the internal lighting system. This is know as Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV), and refers to building projects that integrated PV into the design of the project. For existing buildings, Building Applied Photovoltaics (BAPV) can be used, as this focuses on retrofitting old existing buildings to better harness the energy from the sun. In addition to the roof or facade of a building, even the windows could be utilized: numerous companies have recently integrated PV into the windows and glass surfaces of a building, allowing for electricity to be generated.

The challenge of seamlessly mixing solar cell technology with public structures is indeed an interesting one. As Taiwan is constrained by being rather mountainous, devoting tracts of land to a conventional PV array system would be an act of sheer folly. Therefore, the challenge is to find ways to turn everyday public structures into effective solar generators. Placing PV cells on streetlamps and building rooftops would be the very least a government do, but it can and should do more. Creative solutions, some of which will be covered in the strategy section, will help Taiwan overcome this limitation of available land and illustrate how a small, densely-packed island can reduce her energy consumption and perhaps even become energy independent.

Additional policy events indicating Taiwan’s new focus on developing its green economy came in 2009, when Taiwan passed the long-awaited Renewable Energy Development Act (REDA). The Act obliges the state-owned electricity provider to, through the feed-in tariff mechanism, purchase electricity generated from renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind, marine, geothermal, and biomass. The aims of the Act, according to the BoE, include promoting the use of renewable energy and so increasing the share of renewables in the energy mix from its current 8% (for 2010) to 16% (by 2025), and reducing the level of greenhouse gases by 2025 to what it was in year 2000. The feed-in tariff for solar was initially set high so as to correct a startling fact: Taiwan, being a major solar cell producer, focuses more on the international market than on developing her domestic market, foregoing the benefits of solar energy for conventional sources of energy. Taiwanese companies, such as Motech and Gintech, rank quite high when it comes to worldwide solar cell manufacturing. In recent years, however, this situation of focusing only on the international market has begun to change. Unfortunately, due to a variety of reasons, the solar feed-in-rate was amended leading to projects being put into doubt and the pace of solar rollout slowing down. However, projects are still being earmarked with many more planned, including ones such as Taiwan’s Solar City, Solar Top, and Solar Campus. In 2010, just a fraction under 19 Megawatts (MW) was been installed but the aim is to install 145 MW by 2011. 

According to Minister without portfolio Liang Chi-Yuan, local firms intend to install in year 2011 projects with a total capacity of 1,770 MW, higher than the government’s stated aim of 1,250 MW by 2020. While the very high figure of 1,770 MW is commendable, the fact that the government has only committed itself to purchasing a fraction of this amount for 2011 (due to fiscal discipline) will seriously undermine the viability of those projects.

 

 

Technology

 

Taiwan has been an important manufacturer of electronics for decades, producing semiconductors and semiconductor-based technology; from semiconductor foundries to the production of TFT LCD panels, the slick Taiwanese manufacturing machine makes it all. A combination of a highly skilled workforce and business-friendly policies made Taiwan into a global player, and with the global push into clean sources of energy, Taiwan is now diversifying into so-called ‘green’ energy and manufactures first-generation solar cells and second-generation solar cells.

Currently, Taiwan ranks quite high in solar cell manufacturing due to companies like Motech and Gintech, but the focus is mainly on exports. Being second in terms of manufacturing solar cells (with a global market share of 14.1% in 2010, as stated by the MOEA), one would assume that if a country produced such technology the country would also deploy that technology in its own backyard. At least initially, this was not the case. The situation has, gratefully, begun to change and now companies are looking inward to stimulate and develop the local economy in the area of clean energy technology deployment.

To witness examples of how this technology is being put to good use, one only needs to see the stadium built in Kaohsiung (a city in southern Taiwan) for the World Games; a 55,000 seating capacity stadium built with 8,844 solar cells on the roof with the ability to generate 1.1 Gigawatts (GW) per year. Another example is the BIPV Demonstration project here in Taiwan, which incorporates beautiful architecture and cutting-edge solar material and reminiscent of the pyramid structure at the Louvre (at least in this author’s opinion).

 

Strategy

 

Taiwan has the technological know-how, no doubt. Taiwan also has the policy framework in place. Both are required for an effective strategy to work, and the early indication is that this marriage of the two is working well here in Taiwan. While the strategy of promoting suitable policies to develop an industry based on inherent strengths is a successful one, it is also one that is not new; the time has come for the strategy to be fine-tuned, focusing on what Taiwan has and on what Taiwan can do next.

Hypothetically, PV could cover any flat surface that faces the sun or receives a significant amount of sunlight. As mentioned, Taiwan is a small, densely-packed island with only one-third of the landmass suitable for habitation. However, thanks to the decades of industrialization, the infrastructure in Taiwan is well developed, with networks of rail and road covering the island. With land constraints one factor to pay particular attention to, a creative solution is required. In addition to the rooftop systems, perhaps the government could consider placing PV cells on the sides of the railway networks that crisscross the island, and installing PV cells along the sides and barriers of the highways. Such utilization of infrastructure could also be extended to the island’s two main airports--Taipei Taoyuan and Kaohsiung--and even to the smaller regional and domestic airports located in Taipei and around the country. PV could be installed (retrofitted as these airports are already built) on the roofs of the terminal buildings, and the windows could be fitted with fairly-transparent thin film technology (to provide shade as well as to generate electricity); even the jetties that connect the aircraft to the departure/boarding gate could be covered in PV. As airports require a lot of space, finding areas within that space to install PV arrays might not be difficult. Naturally, these solar arrays must not interfere with the job of the pilots or other airline/airport-related crew, but to install PV in suitable locations at places like an airport will make good use of that available land.

This suggestion is not new; it is merely an observation that creative uses of land will be required to better utilize solar energy. All that is required is a flat surface that either faces the sun or receives a lot of sunlight, from roofs of trains and airports to highway barriers. Besides airports, railway tracks and road networks, stand-alone devices the dot the city and island could also be used. For example, traffic signals and highway signage. Be it rail or road, these traffic signals and signs are everywhere and could also be used for generating electricity. Overhead walkways could also be candidates for PV coverage.

Generating all this electricity is, of course, excellent news but the issue then lies with the electricity provider: if the grid is unable to accept all this extra electricity, then it is essential that the grid is then upgraded to handle the extra electricity. Alternatively, the extra electricity could be directed at powering (either partially or completely, depending on the location and energy requirements) the structure. For example, PV on the roof of buses and airport terminal buildings could be used to power the air-conditioning systems and lighting systems, likewise BIPV and BAPV projects. Solar highway barriers and roadsides, with traffic light and signage stops, could be fed into the grid for distribution.

 

Every country has to develop an energy mix depending on the natural resources available for exploitation, and Taiwan is no different. Being blessed with significant marine, solar and wind resources indicates that the government should concentrate mainly on providing subsidies for these three energy resources. We are not at the technological point where we can stop using conventional fossil fuels to power our cities and ways of life, but we are at the point where we can meaningfully reduce our use of this type of energy. With directed subsidies for installation of solar PV and solar water heater collectors, with directed policy for the utilization of any suitable flat surface, and with the technological strength that underpins Taiwan’s economy, it is certainly possible that Taiwan could wean herself off energy imports and be a blueprint for energy-poor but insolation-rich countries, especially here in Asia.

Taiwan has all the constituent components to make this a reality; all that is required is for a strengthened strategy to kick-start the process.

 

After obtaining his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Nottingham, Dino Ponnampalam moved to Taipei, Taiwan and worked for the National Energy Program Office. He is now a freelance consultant and external contributor, focusing on renewable energy technology, strategy, and policy.

 

 

For more information, please send your e-mails to pved@infothe.com.

2011 www.interpv.net All rights reserved. 

 
 

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