Balancing Renewable Energy Development and Agriculture Policy: Taiwan’s Experience

Balancing Renewable Energy Development and Agriculture Policy: Taiwan’s Experience

Published: 2023.11.03
Accepted: 2023.11.03
30
Professor
Department of Financial and Economic Law; Dean, Office of International Affairs, National University of Kaohsiung, Taiwan

ABSTRACT

Taiwan has enacted the “Climate Responsive Act” that explicitly incorporates the net-zero emissions goal by 2050 in January 2023. Since the energy sector accounts for 54 % of the total carbon emissions in Taiwan, it is vital to promote renewable energy as an alternative to fossil fuel consumption. Taiwan’s government has set a target and timetable for renewable energy, aiming to increase the share of renewables in the overall electricity supply to 20% by 2025 and 60-70% by 2050. Renewable energy development, excluding roof-type solar PV and offshore wind power, requires sizeable open space for renewable energy equipment installation. Renewable energy development thus encounters enormous challenges in seeking solar farm deployment lands in high-population-density countries like Taiwan. When there is a heat for speeding renewable energy development, the green v. green competition shall be seriously addressed, ensuring biodiversity, food security, economic stability, and climate action goals could also be achieved in the long run, even after 2050. This article explores the ecological and food security concerns of fast-growing large-scale solar PV installation in farmland. The policy development ensures renewable energy development does not result in adverse effects on farming and the ecological values of farmland will also be discussed. Some policy suggestions will also be provided to tackle the issues of Green v. Green in the context of climate actions aiming to achieve net-zero emission goals.

Keywords: Solar PV, food security, renewable energy, net-zero emission

INTRODUCTION

Following 136 countries, Taiwan has enacted the “Climate Responsive Act” that explicitly incorporates the net-zero emissions goal by 2050 in January 2023. Taiwan’s government also initiated the “2050 National Action Plan for Reaching Net-zero Emission” (2050 national net-zero plan) in March 2023. The 2050 national net-zero plan comprises 12 key strategies in May 2023 to implement the legally binding net-zero emission goal. The energy sector accounts for 54 % of the total carbon emissions in Taiwan (Ministry of Environment, 2022). Renewable energy development is vital to decrease carbon emissions due to fossil fuel combustion. The promotion of energy transition thus becomes one of the most critical strategies in reaching the net-zero emission goal. In achieving the net-zero emission goal by 2050, Taiwan’s government has set a target and timetable for renewable energy, aiming to increase the share of renewables in the overall electricity supply to 20% by 2025 and 60-70% by 2050 (Focus Taiwan, 2020).

Renewable energy development, excluding roof-type solar PV and offshore wind power, requires sizeable open space for renewable energy equipment installation. Renewable energy development thus encounters enormous challenges in seeking solar farm deployment lands in high-population-density countries like Taiwan. Many renewable energy developers, therefore, seek to reach lease contracts with farmers to install solar PV panels mainly on agricultural land and, in some cases, on fishponds. Due to the lack of specific legislation banning the installation of renewable energy equipment on agricultural land, a fast-growing ground-type solar PV project on farmland has raised serious concerns from environmentalists about enormous farmlands converted to large-scale, ground-type solar PV power sites. According to the Ministry of Interior assessment conducted in 2017, 570,000 ha of agricultural land is currently in farming practices, which is well below the food security safe threshold. Massive conversion of agricultural land has potential environmental impacts on biodiversity, ecological value, deprivation of food productivity, and even farmland prices (Lee, 2021).

THE RENEWABLE ENERGY DEVELOPMENT AND ITS IMPACTS ON AGRICULTURE

Renewable energy development in Taiwan relies heavily on solar panels and wind farm energy. Taiwan’s government sets targets for 2025 to have 6GW of solar power produced on rooftops and 14GW on the ground (Min, 2022). The rooftop solar panels and offshore wind farms do not require much open land for installation. However, the land size for installed larger-scale ground-type solar panels is estimated at 14,000 ha. Seeking urban lands to establish larger-scale solar and onsite wind power faces considerable challenges due to limited spaces in populated areas, legal restrictions, and public opposition. In Taiwan, agriculture encounters growing challenges from water shortages due to climate change and the growing demands of the manufacturing industry. In addition, the ageing farmer crisis in Taiwan significantly decreases the productivity of existing agricultural lands. Much of the agricultural lands are thus left abandoned for farming or illegal usage for recreational or manufacturing purposes. During drought, many agricultural lands are converted to fallow grounds to meet water resource demands from the manufacturing industry and people’s livelihoods. Recognizing the unstable income for farmers due to climate change, many solar power developers thus seek to install ground-type solar PV on agricultural lands.

More and more farmers are convinced to reach long-term lease contracts with renewable developers because they receive more revenue than agriculture practices (Tsai, 2019). Notably, roof-type solar PV generates an average of 30KW per case compared with the ground-based solar PV system generates an average of 100KW per case. Solar power developers are more willing to push for ground-type solar PV projects than roof types due to higher financial returns. So far, the approved roof-type solar PVs are over 2,000 cases, much larger than the ground type. According to a report by Taiwan's Council of Agriculture (which has been reshuffled to Ministry of Agriculture, effective August 1, 2023), approximately 4,684 hectares of agricultural land in Taiwan have been converted to solar power farms (Ministry of Agriculture, 2020). There are growing public concerns about the food security impacts due to promoting renewable energy in agricultural lands. If there is a lack of prompt law and policy responses to increasing conversion from agricultural lands to solar PV instalment, agriculture production could be seriously threatened due to large-scale conversion from croplands to renewable energy usage lands and fragmentation of agricultural lands (Chen, 2023). It will deteriorate Taiwan's food security by increasing the imported food ratio compared to domestic food production. Moreover, renewable energy development on farmlands also results in biological and landscape impacts. In achieving the net-zero emission goal, promoting renewable energy is vital in replacing coal fire and natural gas-generated powers. In short, it is thus challenging for Taiwan’s government to facilitate appropriate sites for renewable energy equipment installation while safeguarding ecological and agricultural values for agricultural lands.

GOVERNMENT POLICY TOWARD RECONCILING RENEWABLE ENERGY DEVELOPMENT AND FARMING PRACTICE

In response to growing concerns about agriculture and biological impacts due to renewable energy equipment installation on farmlands, Taiwan’s government has implemented measures to balance energy transition and food security interests in response to growing concerns and criticisms about converting agricultural lands to large-scale ground-type solar PV sites. The following will explore several policy measures adopted by Taiwan’s government for better governance of renewable energy development on agricultural lands while safeguarding the food security and ecological values of Taiwan’s overall agricultural lands designated by relevant legislation.

Designation of green energy development areas

Due to the lack of specific laws and regulations for banning the installation of solar PVs on specific agricultural land sites, Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs has amended the Regulation on Non-urban Land Usage Control that designates “Green Energy Development Areas” (GEDA), which currently fall into the definition of agricultural lands under the Agriculture Development Act . First, the GEDA only permits the space for installing solar, wind, and thermal power equipment less than 660 square meters at a single site. Second, the regulation prohibits any installation of green power in specially appointed agricultural areas and strict permit requirements for renewable energy development in coastal protected areas. Third, the designation of GEDA shall meet at least one of the following criteria constituting the loss of agrological capacity: salinized, subsided, contaminated land, or otherwise unfavorable for farming (Hung-Wang, 2023).

In implementing the policy, the Ministry of Economic Affairs is responsible for conducting a comprehensive survey on all designated specific areas for renewable energy development and compensating affected farmers. Once GEDA has been publicly announced, renewable energy developers can apply for installation and operational permits for solar PVs with certain restrictions. According to the amended Regulation on Agricultural Authority’s approval of agricultural land use change in March 2022, an application under 2 ha does not require land use change. However, the installation of ground-type solar PV shall not exceed 660 square meters and shall maintain agriculture practices for a single site. For those applications beyond 2 ha, renewable energy developers shall apply for land use change and are subject to strict review by the Ministry of Agriculture in consultation with the Ministry of Economic Affairs based on the size of the development, rationality, and alternativeness. The core for decision-making for approval of agriculture land use change is the assessment of potential impacts on agriculture practice on adjacent agricultural lands and surrounding biodiversity. (Chang,2023) In practice, some local authorities, especially agriculture prefectures, are more aggressive in approving agriculture land use change to promote ground-type solar PV parks. In response to growing concerns about unmanaged agriculture land use change for renewable energy development, the recent legal amendment has enforced the mandate of the central government to regulate large-scale, ground-type solar PV power installed on agricultural lands based on the impact assessment of ground-type solar PVs and farm production and preservation of ecological services provided by agricultural lands. A study evaluates that the environmental service value for farmlands generates around NT$50,000-505,000 (US$1,541-15,567) per hectare. It is vital to consider the ecological importance of farmlands in evaluating suitable sites for designating green power areas on agricultural lands.

Promoting vertical multiple use of agriculture land: a case of fishery- electricity symbiosis

Promoting innovative technology may also address the issues of installing solar PVs on agricultural lands without compromising agricultural productivity. (Turton, 2023) For instance, the Ministry of Agriculture has encouraged farmers to grow certain crops and vegetables underneath solar PV panels. In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture also subsidized the R&D and installation of the Fishery-electricity symbiosis equipment to achieve multiple usage of fish farms. The Fishery-electricity symbiosis ensures power generation from float-type solar PV does not affect the aquaculture practice. This system is operated by installing floating solar PV and connected with underwater turbines. The installed turbines also create artificial reefs that attract fish and other marine organisms, which could enhance the biodiversity of the fish farm. (Galst, 2021) Promoting mixed use of agriculture practice and renewable energy generation provides a “win-win” situation expectation. Although there is potential for developing solar-agriculture farmlands or fish ponds, high maintenance costs may result in cheating agriculture practices that have occurred in some solar PV farms. Frequent monitoring and inspection by relevant local government agencies may be necessary.

SOME OBSERVATIONS AND CONCLUSION

Although Taiwan’s government has adopted several policy measures to restrict large amounts of agricultural land from being converted to solar power sites, farmers and small aquaculture businesses would have difficulty renting agricultural lands or fishponds due to the large gap in rent offerings. In addition, the designation of green power development areas requires comprehensive and transparent environmental assessment. The existing Environmental Impact Assessment Act has been amended only to require ecological impact assessment to be conducted in essential wetlands. The practical and legal concerns mentioned earlier are not well addressed in recent legal approaches adopted by Taiwan’s government and thus require further discussion and refinement of relevant laws and regulations. This article provides some suggestions for policymakers tackling the green v. green issue lesson from Taiwan’s mixed use of solar PV panel installation on agricultural land.

The green power permitting process on agricultural land requires a comprehensive environmental assessment

Providing an open, complete ecological assessment process in the context of the green power development area designation is critical, which allows all stakeholders to participate and exchange views. As discussed earlier, local governments are legally mandated for solar PV licensing on less than 2 ha of farmland. In preventing the race-to-bottom, the Ministry of Agriculture shall provide specific reviewing guidance and criteria considering environmental services and food productivity impacts of specific solar PV panel installations on agricultural lands applicable nationwide. For some large-scale solar PV power farms, the government shall establish a payment for environmental services mechanism requiring renewable energy developers to pay for environmental and food productivity loss.

The promotion of mixed-used solar PV farms requires persistent monitoring

In addition to establishing regulatory and policy approaches that oversee the permitting system of ground-type solar PV panels on agricultural lands by considering the impacts of ecological values and food productivity, it is also critical to ensure the multiple uses of solar PV deployment on agricultural lands. The introduction of new technology and study on suitable types of crops and vegetable planting underneath solar PV panels. After the mixed-use solar and agriculture scheme permits are issued, frequent monitoring and inspection by relevant local government agencies may be necessary to prevent cheating or other illegal land use.

A broader protection of agroforestry, wetland, and urban farming areas

Taiwan’s path to renewable energy development is vital for reaching the net-zero emission goal. Taiwan’s experience has provided valuable lessons for rethinking the impacts of deregulating renewable energy equipment installation on agricultural lands. It may also occur for other high-population-density countries seeking ample space for ground-type solar PV installation. This article thus suggests that the law shall ban the installation of renewable energy equipment in environmentally sensitive areas. Broader protection shall be incorporated into specific legislation that forbids ground-type, large-scale solar PV farms deployed in forest lands, wetlands, and urban farming areas with more significant environmental and economic values than agricultural lands.

Balancing food security, biodiversity, and energy transition is critical for countries aiming for net-zero goals. A study has shown the impacts of solar PV panel installation on farmland prices. Recycling broken and used solar PV panels also creates high costs and carbon footprints. When there is a heat for speeding renewable energy development, the green-green competition shall be seriously addressed, ensuring biodiversity, food security, economic stability, and climate action goals could also be achieved in the long run, even after 2050.

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