The Conundrums of Offshore Wind Power
Sep 22, 2017

Offshore wind power is one of the two major pillars of Taiwan's transition away from nuclear power and fossils fuels to renewable energies. Yet concerns remain that offshore wind farms might obstruct sea channels, encroach on marine habitats and undermine the livelihood of coastal fishermen.

On an August afternoon, the thundering sound and smoke of firecrackers fills the air in front of the activity center in Bengang, a local community in Taoyuan's Xinwu District. The commotion is not part of a temple festival, but is meant to disrupt a public hearing near a transformer station site for a planned offshore wind farm.

As an Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) official begins to explain the project, Benggang ward chief Peng Yung-liang cuts him off, stating, "No need to talk; we are firmly opposed." At the same time, local residents set off more firecrackers, the ear-deafening crackling, roaring sounds drowning out the speaker's voice.

Taoyuan City Councilor Chiu Chia-liang of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who spearheads local resistance movement, chips in, saying, "In the winter, the fishermen catch eel larvae, this will affect their livelihoods. Big business only thinks about making money; they don't care about the locals." Chiu storms off immediately after making his statement, and representatives of the wind park developer and a small number of local residents complete their onsite inspection of the transformer station. For Taiwan's wind farm developers, local protests like this one are a common occurrence.

Offshore wind power plays a major role in Taiwan's energy transformation. By 2025, Taiwan hopes to have an installed offshore wind power capacity of 3 Gigawatts. Currently applications for projects exceeding 10 GW of total installed capacity have been filed, more than three times the government target. In the government's nuclear-free energy mix, wind power takes up a major share, second only to natural gas.

But how can the timetable for the erection of offshore wind farms be met if confrontation and resistance undermine the government's efforts to communicate its energy policy?

Successfully communicating government policy to residents is just one of many challenges. Other hurdles include the leasing of construction vessels for offshore work, securing capital, and dealing with extreme weather events. Just how hard is it to erect an offshore wind farm in Taiwan? Robert Tsai, chairman of Swancor Renewable Energy Co., Ltd., knows best.

It took the company from 2012 until April of this year to be granted a power generation license for its two pilot wind turbines in waters of Zhunan, Miaoli County. "In short, this dream wasn't meant to come true," notes an emotional Tsai as he recalls the many twists and turns that threatened to thwart his dream project over the years.

Hoping to build support for the wind turbines among the local fishermen, Tsai posted employees in Miaoli to do the legwork. By 2015, they had finally won over 95 percent of the fishermen for the project after promising to pay more than NT$400 million in compensation.

However, due to construction difficulties, plant erection costs have meanwhile more than doubled. Tsai also hit a wall with his efforts to raise capital for the project. He had doors slammed into his face more than 200 times. In the end, he had no other choice but to solicit foreign investment.

For Lack of Precedents, Developers Learn the Hard Way

After five years of hard work, only two turbines of the planned pilot wind farm have been completed. If the targeted installed capacity of 3 GW, requiring 500 wind turbines in the sea, were to be reached by 2025, from now on an additional wind turbine would have to be installed every five days.

"We would have to work very hard, but it's not impossible," says Bureau of Energy Secretary-General Lee Chun-li, although this means that many issues would have to be tackled at the same time. For instance, wind park developers could develop wind farms suggested by the Bureau of Energy or scout for prospective sites themselves. At the same time, the government is creating special zones in the Port of Taichung and Xingda Port to facilitate offshore infrastructure construction as part of its four-year wind power promotion plan. "We are doing so many things at the same time, which raises the level of difficulty and complexity," says Lee.

Presently, at least six domestic and foreign firms are competing for wind farm projects in Changhua County. Many of the challenges they face can be attributed to the lack of precedents in Taiwan.

One wind farm developer who did not want to be named points out that offshore wind farms face a bureaucratic labyrinth with long and winding detours. "Promoting the policy is the Bureau of Energy, but when it comes to other government organs, you are hitting a wall," notes the industry insider, pointing to the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, the Fisheries Agency and the Ministry of National Defense.

"It feels like we have embarked on a hopeless adventure," laments the developer, saying that government units should act in concert. Precisely because there are no precedents, the government should take a more proactive role in coordinating the various Cabinet agencies instead of letting developers hit setback after setback. The status of the Bureau of Energy in the government hierarchy is too low, the Fisheries Agency remains passive and ignores its duties, while the capacity of the Executive Yuan's Office of Energy and Carbon Reduction is insufficient. Developers should not be left to fend all by themselves, he says.

This high level of uncertainty undermines willingness to invest. In late July, German wind farm developer WPD Offshore GmbH withdrew its application to build a wind farm off the Changbin Industrial Zone in Changhua County because the prospective construction site mostly overlaps with a white dolphin habitat. In late August, the Maritime Port Bureau announced a new sea channel that would affect the scope of the planned wind farms, triggering protests from developers. All these are recent examples of aggravating circumstances.

Most affected by the new sea channel is the Hai Long Offshore Wind Farm Project in Changhua County, jointly owned by Canada-based Northern Power Development Inc. (NPI) and Singaporean Yushan Energy Pte Ltd. Originally, the Hai Long project comprised wind farms No. 18, No. 19 and No. 25. However, due to the overlap of the wind farm sites with the new sea channel, the project has been scaled down by nearly half. No. 18 can be fully built, whereas only 60 percent of No. 19 can still be developed, and No. 25 had to be scrapped completely.

For NPI Taiwan General Manager Sean McDermott, this is not a new experience. “Taiwan seems to be going through some of the same growing pains that we experienced 10 and 15 years ago in North America and Europe when wind power was just starting out. Energy policy is complex, and it requires coordination among multiple government agencies and public stakeholders, especially since it has such a direct impact on people’s lives. Finding the right approach is tricky and takes time, but Taiwan is moving in the right direction. This transition can be frustrating, but it’s understandable, and we’re confident that Taiwan will figure it out,” says McDermott.

Clearly, energy transformation will not materialize overnight. The eight-year timetable proposed by the government coincides with two successive presidential terms. If implemented, it would provide the incumbent government with something to demonstrate its political track record. But haste usually makes waste. Two years after the Bureau of Energy announced potential wind farm sites, they were found to clash with the new sea channel in one case and a white dolphin habitat in another, which indicates that the prospective sites were announced too hastily. Such rushed policymaking has eroded developers' trust in the government and left local residents feeling they are not treated with due respect.

Lack of Time for Communication Means Everyone Loses

Compared to Germany, which managed to reduce coal-fired power generation by just 10 percent over the past twelve years as part of its energy transition, Taiwan is planning to slash coal-fired power generation by an ambitious 25 percent within eight years. As a result, pressure to realize offshore wind farms is far higher than anticipated.

Lin Tze-luen, deputy director of the Office of Energy and Carbon Reduction, believes that the transition to renewable energies will take time and space. "Energy transition is not just a technological alternative, such as renewable energy substituting thermal or nuclear power, but means a fundamental change in the approach to civil participation," Lin says. "Those advocating renewable energies must communicate clearly which options entail which costs and risks."

Lin believes that communication concerning potential risks is particularly important where local residents oppose wind turbines. "Saying 'No' is very easy, but how about thinking together about a solution that would create a win-win situation for the environment, local development and energetic sustainability?" Lin asks rhetorically.

He suggests slowly building understanding and support through community-building approaches. The laying of an undersea power transmission cable from a wind farm in waters off the Penghu Islands to the coast of Yunlin County was originally put off for ten years. But after Lin posted staff in Taixi township, where the cable is supposed to come ashore, slowly a more sophisticated mode of communication with local residents evolved, which very recently led to some progress in the discussions.

If Taiwan's offshore wind farm ambitions are to materialize, the current conflict between local residents and developers must be transformed into collaboration. If either side only pursues its own selfish interests, no one will gain anything. Developers, local residents and Taiwan's energy transition will all lose out.

Although the energy transition targets have been set, the Office of Energy and Carbon Reduction is currently holding a conference to draft an "Energy Transition White Paper." How did the target come to be set before the conference was called? As Lin explains, past practice was to have the government decide policy targets and approaches. But the international trend now is to forge consensus through dialogue with citizens. The upcoming white paper will cover feasible roadmaps and approaches to reach targets for reducing coal consumption and carbon emissions, and natural gas usage.

What is needed most for consensus building is time. While time alone won't solve everything, without sufficient time, nothing is likely to be solved.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz

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