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.
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