Sunday, May 29, 2016

Taipei: The Bradt e-Guide

Rather than repeat what I've written elsewhere, I'll just post a link to this mention of my newly-published Taipei-only guide. Among the places I recommend to sightseers is Baoan Temple, where I took this photo. I can now claim to be the author of four books, a number which pleases me!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Interviewed by The Wild East Magazine

I recently did an email interview with Trista diGenova, editor-in-chief of The Wild East online magazine, about the writing workshop I'll be holding in late June. To read it, and find lots of other interesting articles, go here.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Historic Towns on the Dahan River (En Voyage)

Long before “made in Taiwan,” there was “grown in Taiwan.” As recently as the 1930s, the island was the world’s number-one source of natural camphor, and the fourth-largest producer of sugar. In terms of tea harvested, Taiwan ranked sixth. 

Trading in two of these three commodities brought prosperity to Sanxia and Daxi in the 18th and 19th centuries. Both towns are conveniently close to Taoyuan International Airport, within day-tripping distance of Taipei, and much adored by sightseers who have a taste for antiquity.

Sanxia means “three gorges,” and the place name reflects the importance that rivers held in the old scheme of things. Pioneers of Chinese origin began settling here in 1685, drawn by an abundance of natural resources. In addition to enough water to grow two crops of rice per year, the nearby mountains were covered with rich woodlands and streaked with seams of coal. In an era before roads, let alone motor vehicles or trains, goods of every kind were carried by porters to the nearest navigable waterway.

When tracts of forest were cleared for agriculture, the timber was used for building or sold, unless it was camphor. A model in Sanxia’s Historical Relics Hall depicts the low-tech, labor-intensive process by which camphor trunks were cut up, then heated to produce an oil prized for its medicinal and insect-repelling properties. Indigo dyeing was another major industry in the Sanxia of yore, thanks to abundances of clean water and Goldfussia formosanus, a wild plant from which the dye was extracted. Behind the Relics Hall, tourists can try their hand at dyeing tablecloths or handkerchiefs, so long as they make an appointment in advance. 

By the 1750s, businesses of all kinds were clustering a stone’s throw from the Sanxia River, a tributary of the Dahan River. The latter drains more than 1,100 km2 of hill country southwest of Taipei, and used to be the region’s main water-highway. Since the completion in 1964 of Shimen Dam, however, the water is rarely deep enough for a dinghy, let alone a barge.

From the late 18th century until well into the 20th century, Sanxia’s commercial hub was known as Sanjiaoyong Street. John Dodd, an Englishman who played a key role in the development of Taiwan’s tea industry in the final third of the 19th century, is believed to have come here on business. By 1945, when the official name was changed to Minchuan Street, road networks were steering commerce elsewhere. Many of the photogenic shop-houses fell into disrepair, a decline not arrested until the authorities launched a major renovation effort in 2004. 

The thoroughfare’s original name was restored along with its century-old red-brick arcades. Ornate baroque-style relief decorations were sandblasted. Hundreds of mud bricks were made by hand to fix disintegrating internal partitions. Sagging roofs were straightened. The street itself was paved with slabs of granite that were chiseled rather than machined. Unavoidable modern features, such as manhole covers and house numbers, were made to look as traditional as possible. 

Entrepreneurs have repopulated the street. Stores here sell everything excursionists could possibly want, including Sanxia’s famous niujiao (“ox horn”) bread. These chewy croissants come in a variety of flavors. For some visitors, Sanjiaoyong Street is not Sanxia’s top attraction. At the northern end of the street stands Zushi Temple, a treasure house of religious art. This shrine was founded in 1769, yet nothing here is especially old. Its value instead derives from the post-World War II efforts of Li Mei-shu, a local politician and acclaimed painter who set the highest standards while supervising restoration work between 1947 and his death in 1983.

The number and quality of wood and stone carvings is astonishing. There are crabs and other crustaceans, dragons, fish, owls, pangolins, elephants, sages, soldiers, and a whole orchestra of musicians. The ceiling of the central chamber, where incense is offered to Zushi, is breathtakingly elaborate. Zushi is the godly name of Chen Zhaoying, a 13th-century government official remembered for his courage during a Mongol invasion of China. 

Zushi Temple is often filled with people and incense smoke, so those seeking a more contemplative environment may wish to drive 15 minutes south to Baiji Xingxiu Temple [pictured here during freakishly cold weather in January 2016, when snow fell on the hills around Sanxia]. 

Located near the top of 740m-high Mount Baiji, the decor and design of this house of worship embody Taoist ideals of simplicity. Each day, dozens of people come here to undergo shoujing, a “fright-soothing” ceremony which many Taiwanese believe can relieve trauma and anxiety. Each ritual, conducted in the main courtyard by a blue-robed volunteer, takes less than a minute. Other visitors prefer to hike, or simply enjoy the view. On clear days, the lowland conurbation stretching from Taipei to Hsinchu is visible between the green hills which crowd the foreground.

Thirteen kilometers upstream, on a bluff with commanding views over the Dahan River, the settlement now known as Daxi (literally “big creek”) appeared in the early years of the 18th century. The first inhabitants were Ketagalan and Atayal indigenous people, but within a few generations Fujianese and Hakka settlers dominated the area.

A century ago, the Japanese authorities then ruling Taiwan reorganized Daxi’s commercial district. After the roads were widened, property-owners commissioned architects and artisans to create new facades for their homes. In keeping with the times, these incorporated a fabulous assortment of Baroque, Greek, Neo-Classical and Renaissance elements, along with some distinctly Taiwanese motifs. What was then known as Lower Street, but is now Heping Road, has better preserved buildings than Zhongyang Road, formerly Upper Street. Both deserve to be explored at a leisurely pace...

This article appears in the May edition of EVA's inflight magazine, and can be read online, starting from page 42.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Tourist Magnet, Part 2 (Taiwan Review)

Compared to cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong, hotels in Taipei face greater competition from non-hotel alternatives, including motels and rooms in private homes booked through, says Joseph Lin, managing director at CBRE Taiwan, a branch of the largest real-estate consultancy company in the world. 

According to CBRE Taiwan, the number of hotel rooms in Taipei grew just over 12 percent in 2015 to reach 34,057. CBRE expects that total to hit 41,039 in 2018. The Tourism Bureau recorded 188,000 hotel rooms throughout Taiwan in 2015, up from 132,000 in 2007.

“In the short term, overall supply will exceed demand, but there’s still a lack of real five-star luxury hotels,” says Lin. “The success of high-end places is really down to the service and experience they can provide, and in these respects Taipei is still catching up,” he adds, and points out that, because obtaining land for construction is difficult in Taipei, most new hotels offering fewer than 100 guestrooms are in fact refitted office buildings.
Lin has also noticed that for new hotels, a greater percentage of the initial investment is going into F&B (food and beverage) and MICE facilities. “Hotels don’t want to put all their eggs in the same basket. There’s a realization that high occupancy rates aren’t easy to achieve, and that tourist numbers may not grow much more, so owners wish to diversify revenue streams,” he says.

“We’re seeing quite a few new hotels in Taipei push back their grand openings,” says Lin. The recent economic slowdown is not the only reason for this, he explains. “Because there’s been such rapid growth, there’s a shortage of experienced workers. Some hotels have decided to extend their soft-opening periods so they’ve more time to train up staff.”

Conscious that cross-strait relations may impact the number of visitors coming from the Chinese mainland, Lin does not want to predict what kind of growth Taiwan’s tourism industry will see over the next year or two. He urges Taiwan’s government to work hard developing other markets which have shown steady growth, such as South Korea and the US, rather than rely on China.

According to Tourism Bureau statistics, the sector’s full-time workforce grew from 100,000 in 2007 to 190,000 last year. 

 “Young people are witnessing the growth of the tourism industry. This has created many job opportunities, so more and more young people are becoming interested in the sector,” comments Yeh Chien-mu, chairman of the Department of International Tourism Management at Tamkang University’s Lanyang Campus.

“To support the growth of tourism, the industry needs people who have the right hard and soft skills. If it’s to recruit these people, the industry has to offer a good working environment, including competitive salaries,” Yeh says.

In the opinion of one travel reporter, the wave of tourists has brought complications as well as profits. “Because mainland Chinese visit certain places – including Alishan, Sun Moon Lake [pictured above], and Yeliu – in such numbers, some Taiwanese now shun those destinations,” says Joyuda Chung, who writes for

Rather than big-ticket investments like the Shanchuan Bridge, a 262m-long pedestrian sightseeing bridge in a mountainous part of Pingtung County in south Taiwan, Chung would prefer more emphasis on long-term planning, and the promotion of local cultures. “I think the profits would be more sustainable,” she says. Chung also feels accommodation in Taiwan is expensive relative to local salaries. “A consequence of this is that camping is becoming more popular, but I think the government needs to better regulate campsites to avoid environmental damage, especially around natural hot springs.”

According to travel agent Teresa Kuo, high accommodation costs and heavy traffic on holidays put many Taiwanese off exploring their own country. Many of these people instead use low-cost carriers (LCCs) to explore Asia, she adds. The proliferation of LCCs flying to and from Taiwan has been a boon for both Taiwanese and foreigners wishing to visit the country.

Among positive trends detected by Chung is the cohort of young people who, having turned their backs on mainstream careers and big-city lifestyles, now run tourism businesses in rural areas. 

“Some of these people are attracted by the lower cost of living, or have returned home to take care of their parents. These micro-entrepreneurs can provide in-depth cultural and ecological experiences in their communities. Some offer niche activities such as cycling or tea-themed tours,” she says. “These Taiwanese have strong roots in local culture, yet seem to be creating a kind of hipsterish aesthetic that’s a major draw for Japanese, Korean and Southeast Asian travelers.”

Chung sees the appearance of “tourism factories” as another step in the right direction. These places are manufacturing facilities where the public can learn how everyday products are made, and perhaps try their hand at creating such items. Tourism factories pull in busloads of domestic tourists, yet seldom appear on international visitors’ itineraries.

Both Chung and Kuo single out for praise the Tourism Bureau-backed Taiwan Tourist Shuttle, a network of bus routes which links hundreds of cultural and scenic attractions in every part of the country. Chung describes the network as “convenient for both Taiwanese and foreign travelers.”

Public transportation is key to government initiatives which seek to mitigate the environmental impact of mass sightseeing. Electric-powered buses shuttle tourists around Alishan National Forest Recreation Area and Sun Moon Lake, and link Taroko Gorge with Xincheng Railway Station. For certain attractions, visitor numbers have been capped. The authorities set a limit of 6,000 people per day for the February 2016 cherry-blossom season at Wuling Farm, a high-altitude scenic area in central Taiwan.  

Chung, Lin and Yeh express concern about the dependence of Taiwan’s tourism industry on the mainland Chinese market, and support efforts to entice other demographics. According to Yeh, Taiwan’s advantages include “night markets, delicious food, religious tourism, and natural scenery… We should preserve these because they contribute a lot to the industry. At the same time, Taiwan should figure out new products to enrich the range of options.” 

He thinks Taiwan is particularly suitable for “slow travel,” which emphasizes seeing fewer places, but enjoying each in greater depth. Taiwan certainly has depth: hospitable people, a culture which interweaves Chinese, Japanese, Austronesian and Western influences, biodiversity hotspots, and landscapes which inspired the name Ilha Formosa, “Beautiful Island." 

Part 1 of this article can be read here.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Tourist Magnet, Part 1 (Taiwan Review)

When the ten millionth foreign visitor to arrive in Taiwan in 2015 landed on December 20, there was fanfare but no surprise. Americans Christopher and Tina Manuele were greeted by officials from the Ministry of Transportation and Communications Tourism Bureau, treated to a traditional lion dance, and presented with gifts. Later they met President Ma Ying-jeou, who took the opportunity to highlight the steady yet remarkable expansion of Taiwan’s tourism industry in the seven years and seven months since he took office. 

Much of the growth is the result of a 2008 agreement between Taipei and Beijing that has led to millions of Chinese sightseers joining package tours (PTs) to Taiwan.

In 2008, Taiwan welcomed 3.85 million foreign visitors, with more (just under 1.09 million) coming from Japan than anywhere else. Of 2011’s 6.09 million arrivals, 1.78 million were mainland Chinese and 1.29 million Japanese. The total for 2013 was 8.02 million, of whom 2.87 million (36 percent) were from the PRC, and 1.42 million from Japan (18 percent). The number of Hong Kong and Macao residents heading to Taiwan that year reached 1.18 million (15 percent). 

Between 2008 and 2015 the proportion of foreign arrivals stating “pleasure” as the main reason for their trip soared from 46.2 percent to 71.9 percent. In addition to total arrivals increasing 2.7-fold between 2007 and 2015, tourist industry foreign-exchange revenues grew 2.6-fold to US$14.8 billion in the same period. Over the past decade, very few countries have seen inbound tourism grow faster than Taiwan.

The Executive Yuan’s 2015-2018 Tourism Action Plan recognizes the industry’s vulnerability to external economic and political factors, and explains that “while our efforts will continue to focus on major markets such as mainland China and Northeast Asia, we will actively seek tourists from Southeast Asia, Muslim countries, and other emerging markets.”

The Plan predicts international arrivals will grow at an annual average of 4.5 percent over the next few years. However, in line with the stated aim of "optimizing quality, enhancing value,” some market segments are expected to grow faster than others. 

The number of ordinary mainland Chinese PTs is expected to grow just 2.6 percent per year. For Japanese, South Koreans, cruise passengers, MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) visitors, and those on high-end packages, the target is 5.8 percent. 

As part of its efforts to lift the overall quality of Taiwan’s tourism industry, the bureau is gradually reducing the number of “cheap and cheerful” PTs from mainland China which critics say bring noise and congestion but few real benefits. The daily limit on leisure arrivals from the mainland of 5,000 still applies, but since May 2015, half of this quota has been reserved for “quality tours.” At the same time, certain visitors are exempt from the cap. Among the latter are those who will explore indigenous areas, those arriving via the ROC’s outlying islands, and tourists who have booked five-star hotels for at least two nights out of every three.

Teresa Kuo, a travel agent with 15 years experience, is especially optimistic regarding the cruise market, saying: “Taiwan’s location, right in the middle in Asia, is a great advantage for developing this kind of tourism.”

The bureau’s projections are in line with the 4 to 5 percent annual expansion in Asia Pacific tourism forecast by the UN’s World Tourism Organization for 2010 to 2030, but well below what some industry figures believe is possible.

“Taiwan has incredible potential and is an under-recognized gem, especially outside the region,” says Cary Gray, general manager of W Taipei, a 405-room luxury hotel in the heart of Taiwan’s capital (see lower photo). “With government support and better infrastructure, it should be possible to double the number of international visitors within five to eight years.”

Kuo says that, while bilingual signage around major tourist attractions is now much improved, she still notices inconsistent spellings for place names. “The English-friendly environment should be extended to all kinds of transportation, and even food stands,” she says.

Until June 2011, PRC citizens could only explore Taiwan as members of a tour group. Abolishing this requirement added a new acronym (FIT, “free independent traveler”) to local argot, and gave rise to various expectations in Taiwan. 

Entrepreneurs in places seldom visited by mainland groups anticipated an influx. Some Taiwanese who have no direct economic interest expressed the hope FITs would go home with a keener appreciation of Taiwan’s democratic freedoms, and a more nuanced view of cross-strait relations. Whether or not their attitudes change, independent mainland Chinese tourists appear to adore Taiwan. Over 95 percent of FITs surveyed by global market-research company Nielsen in March 2014 said they hoped to visit Taiwan again, and more than half planned to revisit within 12 months.

Since March 2015, residents of 47 cities in the PRC have been allowed to apply for FIT entry permits. Of last year’s 10.44 million international arrivals, 1.33 million fell into this category. Another 1.92 million mainlanders came on PTs. All in all, 4.18 million people made journeys from the PRC to Taiwan in 2015, including 91 percent of the 66,210 non-Taiwanese who listed “medical treatment” as the principal purpose of their trip. 

Some FITs backpack around Taiwan, but others travel in real style.  

“We have a half/half mix of business visitors and leisure travelers from all over the world. In 2015, the number of Japanese guests fell 1 percent due to depreciation of the yen. However, in the same period we saw a 2 percent growth in the number of Chinese guests, thanks to the expansion of the FIT program,” says W Taipei’s Gray. 

Gray says that, compared to Chinese on PTs, “Chinese FITs have a lot more freedom to choose where they stay, and typically a bigger budget for accommodation. It’s a major opportunity for us.”

He points out that no new internationally-branded hotels opened in Taipei between 1999 and 2011, but five have been added in the past five years. He believes there is still room for new hotels in Taiwan, but would like the authorities to help the sector in two ways. Firstly, he hopes the rules which govern the hiring of foreign employees can be adjusted. “Various jobs are very difficult to fill if we’re limited to local applicants,” he says.

Secondly, he sees the proliferation of B&Bs as “a great threat to Taiwan’s hospitality industry, because many have been allowed to operate despite minimal fire-prevention and other safety systems. But I believe this issue will be addressed in the near future, hopefully before a disaster occurs.”

As with my recent article about solar energy in Taiwan, I've decided to post here a version of this article that's substantially longer than the one in the magazine's print and online editions. To read Part 2, click on this link.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Rooftop Power Plants, Part 3 (Taiwan Review)

Among the major companies eyeing these opportunities is AU Optronics Corp. (AUO). Like several other Taiwanese firms active in the solar energy sector, much of AUO’s experience was gained overseas. “We’ve successfully cooperated with numerous partners to build solar power plants in Europe, the U.S., Asia and Africa. Now, we’re applying this experience to our business in Taiwan, where we fully support the government’s policy to help Taiwan gradually achieve energy self-sufficiency and sustainability,” says James C.P. Chen, general manager of AUO’s Solar Business Group.

“Being environmentally-friendly lies in the core of everything we do. Our ”Green DNA” campaign aims to raise green awareness and reduce environmental impact among our 45,000-plus employees worldwide. Beyond spreading green consciousness, AUO has been working hard on energy efficiency and making its business environmentally sustainable. Several of our manufacturing facilities have attained LEED certification, with AUO's G8.5 fab in Houli being the world's first LEED Platinum certified TFT-LCD plant.”

Chen thinks the Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction and Management Act – passed by the Legislative Yuan in June 2015, and committing Taiwan to cut its carbon emissions to half of the level recorded in 2005 – means “there’s great potential for rooftop utility-scale solar projects, as they utilize existing buildings, and there’s no need to acquire land.”

“We've already helped corporate customers in several countries build solar power plants and generate green energy. We offer a one-stop service, all the way from project development, engineering, procurement, and turnkey construction to 20-year operation and maintenance,” he says.  

AUO has used its own rooftops in Taichung City's Xitun and Houli districts to set up Sungen Solar Power Plant, which has 72,124 modules spread over 184,618 m2. 

With the completion of its fourth and final phase at the end of 2015, the plant’s capacity reached 21 mW. This is roughly equivalent to the output of ten wind turbines, and substantially more than the total capacity of all 16 solar power stations directly operated by Taipower. All of Sungen’s output - an estimated 27.5 gWh per year, enough to keep approximately 7,600 households supplied with electricity - is sold to Taipower. 

In technical terms, building a large-scale solar power plant is far more complex than installing a small array on the roof of a house or farm building, explains Chen. “It requires meticulous planning and execution,” he says. “Sungen is Taiwan's largest rooftop solar project to date, and also the first utility-scale project built on LCD fabs. The challenges such a project poses are much more difficult than ordinary residential projects, in that any vibration on the rooftop during construction could be hazardous to the LCD production line inside the building.” 

“All the modules and concrete bases had to be prepared before being hauled up onto the roof and moved precisely to their designated places. Also, aviation safety issues had to be addressed,” he adds. But resolving these issues has given the company valuable experience, and “established its proprietary know-how to maintain a competitive edge in the large-scale solar power plant business.”

AUO helped establish Star River Energy Corporation in April 2014. “The corporation operates an investment platform for solar power plants. We hope it'll bring stable and long-term returns for those keen to invest in renewable energy,” says Chen. “It’s also hoped this investment platform will bring AUO green-business opportunities and contribute to Taiwan’s green energy development.”

Initial paid-in capital totals NT$540 million (US$16.2 million) with AUO owning a 35 percent stake. Star River's first action was to take over Sungen Solar Power Plant.

Companies like Star River which invest in and share income generated by renewable-energy projects are known as yieldcos. In May 2015, Neo Solar Power Corporation, Taiwan's no. 1 manufacturer of solar cells and modules, announced plans to invest US$50 million in a yieldco that will be listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

If yieldcos and other private-sector mechanisms fail to achieve the results desired by policy makers, Taiwan’s government could use legislation to compel the installation of PV arrays on private property. 

In March 2013, Lancaster in Los Angeles County, California, became the first city in North America to require the installation of PV systems in all new homes. The city’s building code now mandates at least 1 kW of solar generating capacity on each residential rooftop. In March 2015, the French parliament passed a law ordering all new buildings in commercial zones to have either PV arrays or rooftop gardens. The latter do not produce any power, yet benefit the environment in more than one way. At the beginning of 2015, the government of the Indian state of Haryana mandated at least 1 kW of PV capacity on each building with a footprint of 500 square yards (418 m2) or more. Property owners had to comply by September 2015 or face fines. 

In December 2015, National Taiwan University's Risk Society and Policy Research Center released survey results which suggest ROC citizens are willing to accept the economic costs of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions, which in Taiwan's case are currently around 11 tonnes per person per year. The poll found that 85.1 percent of respondents are willing to pay higher electricity prices to support the development of renewable energy, while 68 percent expressed support for energy and environmental taxes.

Many houses built in Taiwan since the 1960s have flat roofs suitable for PV arrays, and the sun is sure to keep shining. Technological breakthroughs could make other electricity-generating options more attractive, but until that happens Taiwan’s solar-energy boom looks set to continue. Within a generation, rooftop PV systems may well be as common a feature of local homes as stainless steel water tanks and air-conditioning units. 

Part 1 of this article is here; Part 2 is here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Rooftop Power Plants, Part 2 (Taiwan Review)

Like some of its competitors, KY Solar offers two financing options. The first requires no capital investment on the part of the property owner. KY Solar pays all equipment and installation costs, and handles all the paperwork. In return, the building’s owner receives a fixed share—typically between 6 and 8 percent—of the revenue generated by selling electricity to Taipower for a period of 20 years, which is the standard duration for a contract between the energy firm and private suppliers. According to Cheng, an 8 kW array is likely to bring the owner of the roof space around NT$4,200 (US$130) per year. KY Solar retains ownership of the array for the 20 years of the contract and beyond. The contracts also bind future owners of the property. For KY Solar, the break-even point is between seven and nine years into the deal.

The second option is outright purchase. For around NT$600,000 (US$18,460), KY Solar will install and connect to the grid an 8 kW system. Once it is up and running, the owner keeps every dollar paid out by Taipower. Some KY Solar customers have been able to get a bank loan for up to 80 percent of the cost, Cheng adds. If clients ask what happens when the original 20-year deal expires, he tells them the utility may well seek a second contract, because no one expects demand for clean energy to fall in the long term. 

Alternatively, the owners can use the electricity themselves. An 8 kW system sited near Cheng’s office in Tainan City’s Rende District should, according to GeoModel Solar, produce an annual average of 11.1 mWh. Even allowing for a deterioration in efficiency as the cells get older, well beyond 2036 the array will still be producing almost three times what the Bureau of Energy considers sufficient for a normal household. With a battery storage system - these are becoming cheaper and cheaper - living without a grid connection is feasible.

If a landowner decides to go ahead, the company then visits the local Land Registration Office to ensure the building’s actual dimensions match those listed in official records. This is when many projects founder, as Taipower will not enter into a contract if the array is sited on an illegal structure. “In some cases, the homeowner himself doesn’t know his top floor is an illegal extension, because it was there when he bought the house,” Cheng explains. 

Typhoons sometimes tear awnings and water tanks from rooftops, so Cheng must convince potential customers that PV arrays can survive gales. Between 2011 and the middle of 2015, his company installed several thousand individual modules on 300-plus buildings around Taiwan; just seven modules broke loose during last summer’s Typhoon Souledor, despite gusts of up to 230 km/h, he says.

Because installation costs are steadily declining, the BOE has cut the FITs offered to new suppliers of solar energy each year since 2010. “The drop is why there’s always a big rush to finish projects before the end of the year, before the tariff falls again,” Cheng says. 

FITs for rooftop PV systems completed in 2016 range from NT$4.6679 to NT$6.4813 (US$0.14 to US$0.20) per kWh, with smaller systems attracting more generous subsidies. “If the tariff for ordinary homes goes below NT$6 [US$0.18] per kWh, it’ll be hard to find new customers,” he predicts.

Despite the dual advantages of favorable weather and domestic solar cell production, PV is still the most expensive power-generation technology in Taiwan, with the exception of onshore wind power. However, generation costs are just one of the factors determining retail prices; transmission and distribution costs typically account for 40 percent.

In some US cities, solar energy has already achieved grid parity, meaning the unsubsidized cost of power from sunshine is no higher than the retail price of electricity. Taiwan, where households were charged an average of NT$2.91 (US$0.09) per kWh in 2015, is some distance from any such tipping point.

“Over the past 10 years, the market price for a rooftop PV system has declined from around NT$300,000 [US$9,230] per kW to NT$60,000-70,000 [US$1,845-2,155]. Because PV systems are getting cheaper, we expect grid parity for large-scale PV arrays in Taiwan by 2020, but this depends on future fossil fuel prices,” says the BOE’s Chen. “Despite the cost, the MOEA is striving to harness renewable energy, to increase our indigenous energy capabilities, diversify our energy sources, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, improve the environment and facilitate the growth of the domestic renewable energy industry,” she adds.

The original targets for solar- and wind-power set in 2009 by the Renewable Energy Development Act have been revised upwards more than once, and in September 2015, the BOE lifted its target for countrywide PV capacity from 6,200 mW by 2030 to 8,700 mW. This far outstrips the total capacity of Taiwan’s three operational nuclear power stations (4,927 mW), yet when judged from another angle it seems unambitious. By 2030, Taiwan’s PV capacity per capita will be approximately 370 W, something Germany achieved back in 2012.

However, the 2015 target may be raised even further, since the Executive Yuan's recent approval of the construction of solar power plants on 2,519 hectares of land in the sun-drenched counties of Changhua, Yunlin and Chiayi. About half of the land is no longer suitable for farming due to land subsidence. Other plots are adjacent to the nation’s high-speed railway line. If fully exploited, these “agricultural PV zones” should add well over 1,000 mW to Taiwan’s solar capacity.

In a November 2015 op-ed for the Chinese-language newspaper Economic Daily News, Taiwan Institute for Sustainable Energy Chairman Eugene Chien argued that accelerating the development of renewable energy would stimulate the economy and create jobs. Noting Taiwan’s excellent wind and sun resources, Chien, a former foreign minister, described the government’s 2030 target as a “trillion New Taiwan dollar [US$30.8 billion] business opportunity.” But he added, “Behind these huge opportunities, there are issues that must be addressed, such as reforming the tariff structure, raising the vast sums needed for investment, and the need to cultivate industries that can solve the problem of intermittency.”

This is the second of three parts; Part 1 is here, while Part 3 is hereBoth photos are courtesy of KY Solar Co.