Taiwan’s energy security in question

Taiwan’s energy security in question
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Taiwanese citizens and politicians alike are corralling around ideas likely to bring greater energy insecurity to the small island nation. The prospects of renewable energy present an inkling of promise, but will do little to lessen dependency in the absence of a greater policy shift.

Taiwan is a nation that has historically faced daunting energy challenges.

In 2014 alone, the country’s total energy consumption came in at 115.3 million kiloliters of oil equivalent (KLOE). This is a notable figure in itself, since Taiwan’s energy consumption is nearly unrivaled for a country of its size, but what is truly phenomenal is that 98.04% of that energy was obtained via import.

As a highly-developed country consisting primarily of one small island devoid of traditional energy sources, it is clear that Taiwan inhabits one of the most precarious energy security situations – and the coming ten years could see this situation deteriorate even further.

Negative influences

There are two major negative trends that appear to be emerging on the horizon for Taiwan’s energy security. The first is the aforementioned energy dependence.

The overwhelming majority of total Taiwanese energy imports are especially troublesome when one looks at where they are imported from. Out of the 98% of total energy consumption that is shipped in from other countries, the portfolio consists of 52% petroleum — with 81.6% of that figure coming directly from the Middle East.

With instability in the Middle East trending upwards — whether through deadly internal conflicts in Syria and Yemen, or less directly through declining Saudi power and a shifting regional balance — the Taiwanese energy supply will likely become less and less secure with each passing year in the coming decade.

Following closely behind Taiwan’s insecure petroleum situation is coal, which consists of 30.45% of total energy imports. Reiterating the trend of precarious dependency, China serves as the third largest source of Taiwainese coal imports — a country with which long-standing territorial and sovereignty disputes are a constant source of tension. 

Making matters worse, Taiwanese coal imports have continued to demonstrate an upward trend following a short dip during the 2007-08 financial crisis.

From a purely strategic perspective, Taiwan’s most logical step forward would be to work within its geographic and resource-related limits through sizable investments in nuclear energy. This would be a reasonable and immediately feasible first step through which Taiwan could begin to ease its reliance on foreign coal before tackling the more challenging issue of petroleum.

However, the prevailing political climate in Taipei has poised the Taiwanese nuclear sector as slated for extinction.

At present, Taiwan does possess three nuclear power plants that comprise the majority of its already-meager energy production. All three of those plants, however, are scheduled for retirement between 2018 and 2025, with little progress towards their replacement. A fourth nuclear plant, which was set to begin full operations in the 2014-2015 period, has now been canceled by the government due to significant public protests following heightened fears precipitated by Japan’s Fukushima disaster.

Buttressing this trend, opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen, now the front-runner in the upcoming presidential elections, has pledged a definitive end to nuclear power in Taiwan altogether. The political trend towards a nuclear-free Taiwan presents an incredible challenge to the country’s energy security by stripping the country of its only feasible road away from foreign energy dependence before it even has a chance of being developed.

Renewable energy as a silver lining

Taking these negative trends into consideration, there is reason to suspect that Taiwan’s energy supply will be less secure in 2025 than it is today.

In fact, a recent study conducted by the Atomic Energy Council — an independent agency within the Taiwanese government — has now noted that “all scenarios reveal sustained deterioration [of Taiwanese energy security] from 2015 to 2025.”

While this makes finding sources for optimism in the future of Taiwanese energy security challenging, there is at least one possible silver lining for Taipei and its mounting energy “conundrum”: the potential emergence of a thriving renewable energy sector.

In tandem with her proposed policy on the elimination of Taiwanese nuclear energy, front-runner Tsai has also proposed increased investments in renewable energy aimed at bringing renewables up from 3% to 18% of national energy production, and the Atomic Energy Council forecasts a 396% boost in renewable energy production by 2025, regardless of who wins the election.

Such renewable energy development would allow Taiwan to begin moving away from energy dependence as a whole and, if applied to the transportation industry, address the particularly difficult issue of petroleum importation. 

The development of a Taiwanese renewable sector is an important step in alleviating the nation from such a perilous degree of energy insecurity, but the emergence of a greener Taiwan ultimately does little to solve the supply problem, so long as it is only used in isolation as a counterweight to the proposed elimination of nuclear power.

Investments in renewables will be most effective if Taiwan accompanies them with sustained growth in the presently more efficient and reliable nuclear industry. It is the degree to which each of these trends emerge that will dictate the future of Taiwan’s energy stability.

About Author

Ian Armstrong

Ian Armstrong is Commissioning Editor and Senior Analyst at GRI. He also serves as the Geostrategy and Diplomacy Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Previously, Ian assisted in research at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, Scottish Parliament, and Hudson Institute's Center for Political-Military Analysis, where he has focused on non-proliferation and international energy. Ian's analysis has been featured at prominent outlets such as Huffington Post, Business Insider, Foreign Policy Association, CBS News, and RealClearEnergy.