Taiwan is racked by debate over the prospect of a referendum on its fourth nuclear power facility, currently under construction, but subject to a ban on further works.
The debate is focused on the risks of nuclear power on an earthquake-prone island (with reference to the Fukushima disaster in Japan) and the supposed cost of moving off a nuclear trajectory in terms of electricity prices and reliability of supply.
It has also become side-tracked by a long debate over the legalities of the referendum process in Taiwan, and whether the present government is to be trusted in the framing of the referendum question.
However, what is missing in this debate is the recognition that Taiwan has more to gain in promoting renewable energy industries than in sticking with the nuclear option, both in terms of energy security and in terms of building export platforms for tomorrow. The example Taiwan should be following is Taiwan itself.
Taiwan is justifiably proud of its achievement in building three "pillar industries" in semiconductors, flat panel displays and PCs. Now it should be getting ready to add a fourth pillar industry, of comparable success – a solar PV and wider renewable energy sources industry – utilising all the institutional and entrepreneurial strategies perfected in Taiwan’s earlier development.
Replicating mainland China
The model for such a strategy is close to hand. In mainland China, we find the world’s most strenuous and dedicated promotion of renewable energy industries, in an extraordinarily successful industrial policy. Renewable energy industries were considered playthings, marginal players, until China got serious about promoting them in the mid-2000s. In one sector after another – first in wind, then in solar photovoltaics (PVs), tomorrow probably in concentrated solar power (CSP) – China has been pursuing relentless promotion of a “green” option to balance and complement its pursuit of a “black” coal and oil-fired option.
The mainland’s industrial policies, grounded in the need to build energy security and not be reliant on fuel imports from troubled countries, have been spectacularly successful, as it has exported its renewable energy products all around the world. But it is also exporting its green development “model” to other countries such as India and Brazil, and it is now being emulated as well by advanced countries such as Germany (with its non-nuclear “Energy transformation” or Energiewende).
Mainland China’s relevance as an energy model for the Taiwan nuclear debate is undeniable. It not only has an effective industrial policy to support the development of new industrial sectors such as renewables, but is also successful in promoting the drastic upgrading of the grid to make it able to accommodate a variety of decentralised renewable inputs, through investments in IT (a smart grid) and high-tension long-distance HVDC power lines (a strong grid).
Ageing nuclear technology
By contrast, Taiwan is currently embroiled in an energy debate over the nuclear option that Germany and many other countries are leaving behind. This is a very different perception of the future from that of Taipower and some Taiwan big firms, who anticipate that renewables will be costly and unreliable. The Chinese government knows full well that the opposite is the case.
Taiwan’s nuclear industry is nearly three decades old, and has been based on now-outdated American technology. Four of its reactors are General Electric boiling water reactors, and two are Westinghouse pressurised water reactors (PWRs) – the kind that succumbed at Fukushima in Japan. The reactor designs date from the 1950s. The fourth nuclear facility projected, at Lungmen [Gongliao, New Taipei City], is designed to consist of two 1,350-megawatt Advanced Boiling Water Reactors (ABWR), sourced once again from GE-Hitachi (reactors) and from Mitsubishi (turbines).
While ABWR technology is Generation III, apart from the contracting business involved in actually building the reactor, there is very little anticipated Taiwan contribution or spin-off from the technology. No doubt there has been considerable pressure from American sources to ensure that Taiwan continues to implement US-made nuclear technology. This is where the contrast with a “Taiwan-first” renewables industrial strategy would be most telling.
The approach we propose is based on extending the successful Hsinchu model that has been the backbone of Taiwan success in high-technology industries. This is a quite different strategy from the one being pursued by both political camps in Taiwan – the KMT with its pro-nuclear stance and the DPP with its anti-nuclear stance. The key is to frame the energy issue in terms of Taiwan’s industrial strategies.
The solar farm idea
To fix ideas, let us suppose that the Taiwan government said today that the entire nuclear fleet would be phased out over five years, and would be replaced by a series of concentrated solar power (CSP) plants – fields of mirrors collecting and concentrating solar energy and storing it in a heat transfer fluid such as molten salts. The scare stories are that this would cover Taiwan in photovoltaic cells; that it would be prohibitively expensive; and that it would be unreliable since power could be generated only when the sun shines or the wind blows. All these claims are false.
The reality is that just a few mirror farms using molten salt technology as heat sink would be needed, covering no more than 125 square kilometres, which is as nothing when compared with Taiwan’s land area of 32,260 square kilometres, and comparable to the land currently devoted to Taiwan’s advanced science and technology parks.
The point about CSP plants operating with molten salt heat storage is that they could easily generate all the power currently produced by the nuclear fleet in Taiwan – and generate power 24 hours a day (with up to 30 days heat storage for power generation in the current technology) – in a way that is infinitely more reliable and safer than the current nuclear facilities. In time-honoured fashion Taiwan’s adoption of CSP technology would drive down the costs and open up a vast global market, and at the same time score a massive plus for reducing global carbon emissions.
What a new green industrial paradigm would require is not just promotion of new industries (as is being done for solar PVs, LEDs and electric vehicles) but promotion of a domestic market as a test-bed for the new products and services.