2011 / 6月
Teng Sue-feng /tr. by Scott Williams
"Will Taiwan run short of energy without nuclear power plants?" It's an old question that still lacks an answer, because Taipower has not or will not run the numbers. The veiling of this data has allowed environmental groups and the government to answer the question however they please.
This magazine examined summertime power shortfalls back in 1995. At that time, Taiwan had experienced several summers punctuated by unexpected blackouts and measures to limit electricity consumption, creating enormous headaches for industry and the public. The sudden blackouts weren't caused by lack of -power, but by excessive loads resulting from Tai-power's inefficient management of the grid and the rapid growth of the domestic economy.
In Taiwan, which imports most of its energy, electricity demand has grown in step with the economy. In contrast, in recent years various countries have succeeded in delinking economic growth from electricity demand. Why can't we do the same?
One key problem is the low price we pay for power. Cheap power is a legacy of government policy that dates back to former Premier Sun Yun-suan's efforts to restore electricity to all of postwar Taiwan. The idea was to favor certain users and activities and ensure that local industry remained competitive. Prices for other goods may have soared, but electricity prices remained largely unchanged.
They're cheap relative to those of our neighbors. In 2008, the average prices of electricity for industrial use in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong were respectively NT$4.38, NT$1.89, NT$4.44, and NT$2.93 per kilowatt-hour, versus NT$2.02 in Taiwan. The story is much the same for residential power, which in those nations cost NT$6.5, NT$2.81, NT$5.99, and NT$3.79 per kWh, respectively, versus NT$2.58 in Taiwan. According to the Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, electricity accounts for 1.22% of Taiwanese household expenditures and water for just 0.14%, while communications account for 2.3%. That is, we spend less on water and electricity than we do on our telecom bills.
To insulate businesses and the public from price spikes, the government has postponed price adjustments several times over the last 20 years (prices were raised in 2008), causing local electricity prices to diverge from energy costs. Low prices have also caused consumers to undervalue power, which is detrimental to efforts to conserve energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The government originally provided preferential electricity rates to encourage industrial development. But the policy distorted the allocation of resources and became, in effect, a subsidy for energy-intensive industries. Research by National Tai-pei University's Professor Chang Ssu-li shows that Taiwan's tech industry spends less than 1% of its revenues on electric power, and that even the power-hungry steel industry spends less than 4%. Low costs have given industry little incentive to conserve.
Bruce Cheng, chairman of green-energy heavyweight Delta Electronics, recently noted that the nations of the world are making adjustments to their power systems and expressed the hope that the government in Taiwan would roll out a comprehensive green-energy strategy. But our long history of low power and water prices has made it difficult to assemble such a policy.
"How much more expensive is renewable energy?" asked environmental groups at a hearing organized by the Ministry of Economic Affairs. "Let's see the numbers. How much higher would prices be without nuclear power? If we're already generating green power, why aren't we giving the public the option to buy it?"
Developed nations are making use of voluntary green-energy purchases by en-ergy users to provide renewable energy with the funds it needs to develop further. When will Taiwanese households have the choice of purchasing green energy? How much should their power bills increase after the three existing nuclear plants are retired, following President Ma's decision not to extend their lives? By NT$1,000 per year, as NGOs have suggested? Or will they double, as Taipower has claimed? We need numbers. Green energy might not turn Taiwan's energy policy around overnight, but it would at least put the transformation of our energy system on the table.