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 Airbnb.com, 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 Xinmedia.com

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.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Rooftop Power Plants, Part 1 (Taiwan Review)

Nearly two years ago, farmer Xie Rong-hua made one of the biggest investments of his life, spending well over NT$1 million (over US$31,000) on the photovoltaic (PV) equipment that now sits atop the building in Tainan City’s Guiren District in southern Taiwan where he raises goats for milk and meat. 

The setup includes 81 modules, each of which is 193 centimeters long, 99 cm wide and capable of converting sunshine into 230 watts of clean electricity. But Xie admits he embraced solar energy for financial rather than environmental reasons. As soon as the PV array was complete, he signed a contract with Taiwan Power Co. (Taipower) that commits the state-owned utility to buying all the electricity produced on his farm at an attractive feed-in tariff (FIT) premium. FITs are designed to boost investment in renewable energy by offering guaranteed pricing and a reasonable rate of return.

The Renewable Energy Development Act, promulgated in July 2009, requires Taipower to offer such incentives. FITs have led to a surge of private-sector interest in renewables in Taiwan, with solar electricity generation 75-fold in just over six years.

“The accumulated installed capacity of PV systems was 9.5 mW at the end of 2009, and 728.5 mW by October 2015. Solar is thus the fastest-growing source of energy in Taiwan. Our promotion of PV systems is bearing fruit,” says Linda L.H. Chen, deputy director and spokeswoman of the Bureau of Energy (BOE) under the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA). According to the bureau, all but 2.3 percent of Taiwan’s PV systems benefit from some kind of subsidy.

Taiwan has abundant sunshine and is a leading manufacturer of PV equipment, but prior to the Renewable Energy Development Act, few PV systems were generating electricity in the country. Those traveling around the country were just as likely to come across a small solar rig powering lights in a remote hikers’ shelter, as they were to see a multi-module array on top of a factory, home, or school

Between 2007 and 2011, Taiwan rose from the world’s no. 5 to no. 2 producer of panels that convert sunshine into power. Since then, the country has trailed only mainland China. Taiwanese companies make both mono- and polycrystalline silicon material - substances used in the manufacture of PV cells and electronics - as well as the cells themselves, modules and solar trackers, which rotate and tilt PV arrays to maximize their efficiency.

In June 2015, Solar Progress, the official magazine of the Australian Solar Council, ran an article titled Island of Irony. “Despite the global reach and reputation of Taiwan's PV industry, local solar energy production represents a minimal amount of the island's energy mix, which instead relies heavily on fossil fuel imports,” it pointed out. 

Data compiled by GeoModel Solar, a Slovakia-based company that offers data, software and consultancy services for solar-energy forecasting and planning throughout the world, illustrates Taiwan’s suitability for solar electricity generation [see map above which shows global horizontal irradiation in terms of kWh per m2]. The western plain between the Dajia River near central Taiwan’s Taichung City and Kenting National Park in the far south is the country’s “sunbelt.” Much of this area receives more than 1,700 kilowatt hours per square meter of irradiation in an average year. The only landmass within 1,500 kilometers that receives more is the Philippine island of Luzon.

Allen Cheng is trying to bolster the popularity of PV technology in this region. “About half the people I meet who want to add solar cells to their buildings are interested in the money they can make. The other half do it to help the environment,” says Cheng, a supervisor at the Tainan branch of KY Solar Co.

KY Solar, which is based in northern Taiwan’s Hsinchu County and specializes in installing small-scale PV arrays, has six sales offices around the island. The Tainan branch was established in October 2014, and now employs 15 salespeople, some part-time. In their first 13 months, the sales team signed 18 contracts with property owners. The largest was for a 320 kW array on top of a yet-to-be-completed factory in Kaohsiung City’s Luzhu District in southern Taiwan. A typical project consists of 32 modules producing up to 8 kW, Cheng says.

Cheng and his colleagues spend much of their time searching for promising sites. When one is found, they seek out the landowner, or put a leaflet in the letterbox. A common reaction, he says, is skepticism: “Most people know that PV systems can generate electricity, but many don’t believe Taipower will sign a 20-year contract to buy their electricity.”  

Some worry that fixing a PV array to their roof will causes cracking and leaks, so Cheng has to explain that a sealant is applied as part of the installation process. 

Since 2012, as part of its “Million Rooftop PVs” project, the BOE has been promoting solar energy through consultancy services, seminars, digital media coverage, exhibitions, websites, technological conferences and lectures. Yet Cheng feels the bureau’s efforts are insufficient. He has met people who do not know the government is pushing solar energy, and says: “We really hope they can promote this policy on TV.”

Part 2 of the article is here; to jump to Part 3, click here.

When researching this topic, I gathered far too much information, and far too many useful quotes, to squash inside the magazine's 1,900 word-limit.  What I'm posting here - in three parts - is a longer, more comprehensive version of the article which appeared in the March issue of Taiwan Review. The "official" print version can be read online here.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Reflecting on the media and disasters

On another blog, I've published an account of the recent earthquake that struck the city in which I live, including my reasons for turning down offers to join media coverage of the disaster and its consequences.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Too Much of a Good Thing (Taiwan Review)

Galton Shen vividly remembers the first time he treated a patient whose suffering was linked to an addiction to the Internet. “He was a young man, just 22, complaining of severe constipation,” says Shen, a physician who shares a clinic with another doctor in Changhua County’s Beidou Township in central Taiwan. “I’ve treated every member of his family over the years, so I knew something about their lifestyles. I asked him some questions about his diet and habits, and it was soon obvious that his problem was a result of not eating regularly and not eating healthy foods,” recalls Shen. “This surprised me because his parents grow their own vegetables.”

The next day, the young man’s mother visited Shen — to discuss her son’s health rather than her own, it turned out. “Pretty soon, I got a clearer picture of what was happening. He wasn’t working or studying, and he was spending at least 100 hours each week in an Internet cafe. Whenever he felt hungry, he’d eat instant noodles or some junk food. He wasn’t drinking enough water, and he wasn’t exercising,” the doctor says.

Shen called the young man in for another consultation. “I told him he needed to reduce his computer use, improve his diet and so on. But I knew my advice probably wouldn’t be effective. I could see it was an addiction, a compulsion that had taken over his life.”

Over the course of his career, Shen has on numerous occasions advised alcoholics to reduce their drinking and smokers to quit. “With smokers and alcoholics, I could refer them to programs that might help. But with this young man, I had nothing to offer.” Within a few months, however, the 22-year-old had drastically reduced the amount of time he spent playing online games. Shen does not take any credit for this. “He began to suffer severe eyestrain. According to his mother, the physical discomfort and warnings from his ophthalmologist pushed him to change his lifestyle,” the doctor notes.

Shen’s diagnosis of the young man took place in 2003, when the study of Web addiction in Taiwan and elsewhere was in its infancy. Among the pioneering researchers in this field locally were Wang Chih-hung, now an associate professor of Guidance and Counseling at National Changhua University of Education, and Ko Huei-chen, currently dean of the College of Humanities and Social Science at Asia University in central Taiwan’s Taichung City and head of the Center for Prevention and Treatment of Internet Addiction, also in Taichung. Since its establishment in 2012, the center has been developing diagnostic criteria for Internet disorders, researching and providing treatment for addicts, and working with various nongovernmental organizations to promote healthy computer use.

When trying to gauge the extent of Internet addiction among a group or in an individual, one of the most commonly used diagnostic tools is the Revised Chen Internet Addiction Scale (CIAS-R). The original CIAS was devised more than a decade ago by Chen Sue-huei, a professor in the Department of Psychology’s Division of Clinical Psychology at National Taiwan University in Taipei.

The CIAS-R comprises 26 questions that are answered on a scale of 1—“Does not match my experience at all”—to 4—“Definitely matches my experience.” The minimum possible score is 26, and the maximum is 104. The CIAS-R is also often used in mainland China and Hong Kong. Cross-border comparisons suggest problematic Internet use in Taiwan is comparable to other societies where inexpensive Web access is almost universal.

For a 2011 study, Ko and her co-authors considered a score of 64 or higher to indicate Web dependency, and concluded that the level of Internet addiction among local college students was 15.3 percent. They found Web addicts not only spent more time using the Internet than non-addicts, but were also more likely to display symptoms of depression, feel unsatisfied with their academic performance, and exhibit lower refusal self-efficacy, which is the ability to ignore the Internet when it is available. The study further suggested that Internet addicts were more likely to be male than female.

Researchers using other methods have come up with similar results. Between 1999 and 2003, Tsai Chin-chung and Sunny S.J. Lin of National Chiao Tung University’s Center of Teacher Education published survey results indicating that around 12 percent of Taiwanese high-school students were addicted to the Internet, spending at least 20 hours online per week.

According to the results of an Asia University-National Cheng Kung University survey of more than 9,000 individuals published in September 2015, young Taiwanese spend a great deal of time on the Web. Excluding school-related online activity, those in the fourth to sixth grades are on the Internet for 57.8 minutes per day. Junior high school students are online for 115.8 minutes daily, while for senior high schoolers the figure is 147.2 minutes. These are weekday averages; on weekends, the daily totals approximately double.

There are five generally accepted categories of Internet addiction. The first is a cyber-sexual addiction to online pornography and adult chat rooms. The second is compulsive shopping, gambling or stock trading. The third is compulsive searching for and consumption of information. The fourth is the obsessive playing of computer games. The fifth is an unhealthy preference for relationships with people online rather than real-world friends and relatives.

The proliferation of smartphones in recent years appears to have altered the nature of Internet dependency. According to experts, the typical addict is less likely than before to be a teenager who engages in overnight binge sessions of gaming at Internet cafes, and more likely to be someone in their 20s who checks their phone for social network updates several times each hour...


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