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 growing 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

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