TAOYUAN, Taiwan: At a row of greenhouses around 50km from Taiwan’s capital Taipei, vanilla farmer Tseng Tien-fu is installing dozens of solar panels, part of the island’s plan to meet its renewable energy goals without sacrificing scarce farmland.
Tseng, who exports most of his crop to Japan, is expanding his business to meet demand from elsewhere and government payments for solar energy will reduce any risk to his livelihood while he waits for the slow maturing plants to develop.
The use of “distributed” solar – panels installed on walls and rooftops – has become increasingly popular in regions where land is at a premium. Taiwan provides generous subsidies for rooftop panels, and the government is also obliged to buy the surplus electricity they produce, providing Tseng’s greenhouses with a vital new earning opportunity.
“It takes a long time to grow vanilla before there are any crops, but we can sell (electricity) from solar panels to the government for 20 years as soon as they are installed and have an income from that,” he said.
“So especially for plants like vanilla that take three years before there are any crops, I think (solar panels) are a very good combination.”
Tseng’s shift to solar is part of a wider attempt to solve one of the biggest challenges facing Taiwan as it strives to meet its renewable energy targets.
Agricultural land accounts for about a fifth of the densely populated island’s total area, and there is little room for sprawling wind and solar farms, which take up significantly more space than conventional energy sources.
Land shortages are one of the biggest obstacles to renewable energy development, which is estimated to require around 10 times more land per unit of power than conventional power sources.
As they try to decarbonise their energy systems, governments across the world have been trying to figure out how to minimise disruptions, avoid conflicts with farmers and prevent further agricultural and biodiversity losses.
In the United States, dozens of wind and solar projects have been blocked amid concerns about the occupation of farmland, and developers in China – the world’s biggest renewable energy market – are now being encouraged to make use of depleted mines, mountain slopes and deserts.
Taiwan failed to meet its interim solar capacity target of 11.25 GW this year and has little room for manoeuvre as it tries to raise solar capacity to 20 GW by 2025.
“There are not a lot of large-scale (solar energy installations): Taiwan has no desert and Taiwan’s land use is very intensive,” said Juang Lao-dar, the Director of Planning at the Taiwan Executive Yuan Council of Agriculture.
“So when we develop green energy, from the country’s perspective, we have to look at solar panels that have a smaller impact on production, and it’s the same for the agricultural sector.”