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A post-referendum survey showed voters were unaware of Taiwan's energy policy.

No Consensus, Mass Confusion After Taiwan's Energy Referendums

2018/12/18 , Voices
Roy Ngerng
Credit: Reuters / Pichi Chuang
Roy Ngerng
Roy Ngerng writes on social issues and equality. He was also named a Human Rights Defender by the United Nations and believes that human rights and social justice will enable fairer, happier and more compassionate societies.

Last month, Taiwan held three referendums on energy-related issues, which all passed, but questions have been raised on whether the electorate were sufficiently aware of the issues to vote on them.

The three referendum questions were:

  • Question 7: Do you agree that the electricity output of thermal power plants should be lowered by at least 1 percent every year?
  • Question 8: Do you agree that Taiwan should establish an energy policy that undertakes not to construct any new coal-fired power plants or generators or expand existing facilities (including the expansion of the Shen'ao Power Plant)?
  • Question 16: Do you agree with abolishing the first paragraph of Article 95 of the Electricity Act, which stipulated that, “all nuclear-energy-based power-generating facilities shall completely cease operations by 2025”?

The referendums passed but even when the questions were first proposed, there was confusion as to why they were put to the vote in the first place.

800px-台湾第四原子力発電所
Credit: Toach Japan / CC BY-SA 3.0
Taiwan's unfinished No. 4 Lungmen Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei. Construction was halted after mass protests.

On Question 7, 79.04 percent of the Taiwanese voted to reduce the electricity output of thermal power plants.

But there was no need for this referendum in the first place. According to Wu Cheng-cheng (吳澄澄), a researcher at Green Citizens' Action Alliance: “The official goal of reducing coal fired power is already more radical than [that proposed in] Question 7.

“From the NGOs’ perspective, these two questions proposed by the Kuomintang (KMT) have no actual help to [our] current campaign,” Wu said. (Questions 7 and 8 were proposed by the KMT.)

This raises the question of why they were proposed in the first place.

The other question of “no actual help” that Wu was talking about was Question 8, where 76.41 percent of the Taiwanese voted to stop the construction of any more coal-fired plants. Again, this question had become redundant by the time it was put on the ballot.

As Taiwan Power Company (Taipower) spokesperson Hsu Tsao-hua (徐造華) said, “Taipower does not have plans for any new coal-fired power plants or generators.” Moreover, prior to the referendum, the government has already announced that the expansion of the Shen’ao coal-fired power plant would be halted.

In addition, it is already a goal by the current government to reduce electricity generation via coal-fired power from the 47 percent in 2017 to 30 percent in 2025.

Even when the questions were first proposed, there was confusion as to why they were put to the vote in the first place.

Perhaps the most controversial of the three referendums was the one on nuclear power – 59.49 percent voted to continue using nuclear energy after the original shutdown deadline in 2025.

Were voters fully informed ahead of the referendums?

But there has been concern that even though voters voted in favor of nuclear energy use after 2025, that they might not have fully appreciated the issue at hand.

In a survey by the Risk Society and Policy Research Center (RSPRC), where I work as a research assistant, it was found that 43.6 percent of the respondents had actually mistaken nuclear energy to be the main source of power generation in Taiwan.

It is not. Coal-fired power is. Nuclear energy comprised only 8.3 percent.

On the RSPRC’s Twitter, netizens took to sharing the post to question the referendum results.

Klaus Bardenhagen, reporter for German news site Weltreporter, remarked: “Most Taiwanese believe their energy predominantly comes from nuclear?

Another Twitter user, ber.tai, likewise thought that the survey result “basically explains voting behavior on [November 24].”

In any case, the government has announced that the 2025 nuclear-free goal will now be abolished, in line with the referendum results.

There was also bewilderment in the way voters voted.

In their media release on their survey results, the RSPRC said: “There were also contradictions in the results of the referendums.

“Whereas the public […] rejected the goal of a nuclear-free homeland by 2025, yet they also rejected importing agricultural products and food from the Fukushima area where a nuclear accident occurred.”

The referendum on rejecting Japanese food imports is Question 9, which asked: “Do you agree that the government should maintain the ban on imports of agricultural products and food from areas in Japan affected by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster on March 11, 2011, including from the Fukushima, Ibaraki, Gunma, Tochigi and Chiba prefectures?”

Question 9 obtained 77.74 percent of the vote, and voters rejected food imported from post nuclear-affected Fukushima. Ironically, voters supported domestic nuclear energy, with 59.49 percent voting in favor.

Indeed, just days after the referendum, the problem of where to dispose of nuclear waste also became an issue.

In New Taipei, the first reactor at the Jinshan Nuclear Power Plant was set to be decommissioned. However, as the nuclear waste dry storage facility had not been built in line with decommissioning plans, the nuclear waste could therefore not be disposed of, and safety systems at the plant therefore have to keep running.

VBoters in the Jinshan township in New Taipei, where there are existing nuclear facilities, had actually voted in favor of the pro-nuclear referendum. However, New Taipei Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫) has pointed out that “nuclear waste should never be stored in a heavily populated city.”

Nuclear waste therefore has to be stored somewhere – on Orchid Island, for instance, where nearly 100,000 barrels of low-radioactive waste is currently being stored.

However, on Orchid Island, residents voted against the continued use of nuclear energy after 2025. 817 of the voters voted against, while only 634 were in favor.

In fact, the votes were flipped. Voters in Jinshan, New Taipei, where there is a nuclear power station, were 56 percent in favor of using nuclear energy after 2025, with 43 percent voting against it.

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Source: rfrd.tw.github.io

But in Orchid Island, where nuclear waste is left to be stored, it was 56 percent of the voters there who instead voted against continued energy use and only 43 percent wanted to keep using it.

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Source: rfrd.tw.github.io

This led Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator Chen Man-li (陳曼麗) to criticize: “While some people in Taiwan have been advocating the continued use of nuclear power, they have not addressed the issue of nuclear waste storage,” the Taipei Times reported him as saying.

Chen added: “You want it to eat something, but you don’t want it to shit anything out.”

But the convener of the pro-nuclear referendum, Huang Shih-hsiu (黃士修), and a former legislative assistant of the KMT’s Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), had suggested that Taiwan’s nuclear waste can be dealt with as long as every household in Taiwan keeps a small canister of nuclear waste at home.

Perhaps a problem of the nuclear referendum was also its narrow and one-sided nature. Voters were asked to consider nuclear energy without considering the growth of renewable energy.

Associate Professor Jane Ywe-hwan (張月環) of National Pingtung University, explained that, on the pro-nuclear referendum, the question was phrased in such a way which could lead voters to think that nuclear power can be used to “promote ‘green’ energy.” Indeed, she said, many people did take the question to mean that cultivating renewable energy would be “a good way to enable the country to go ‘green.’”

Orchid_Island_2008
Credit: Zac Harper / CC0
Orchid Island, or Lanyu, voted against the nuclear referendum. At present, Taiwan stores nuclear waste at a facility on Orchid Island.

Former Citizen Congress Watch chairman Shih Hsin-min (施信民) added that “calls for the use of nuclear power to supplement ‘green’ energy sources are naive and overlook the inherent dangers of nuclear power.”

He referred to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant incident in 2011, which resulted in the evacuation of people living within a 250 kilometer radius of the plant.

If the Jinshan plant in New Taipei was to face a Fukushima-esque incident, Fang explained that the amount of fuel rods stored inside the plant would require people living within a 1,000 kilometer radius to be evacuated.

M. V. Ramana, Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia, also explained that, “for decades, nuclear advocates had a comforting response: although expensive to build, nuclear plants are cheap to operate and profitable in the long run.

“That is no longer true,” she added. “Several nuclear plants have been shut down because the utilities operating them are losing money. As shown by the UCS report and similar studies, many more are likely to be shuttered.”

Ramana added that on the other hand, “Renewables are not just getting cheaper, they are also quick to construct.”

The Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2017 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency also showed a similar global trend.

If the Jinshan plant in New Taipei was to face a Fukushima-esque incident, Fang explained that the amount of fuel rods stored inside the plant would require people living within a 1,000 kilometer radius to be evacuated.

Indeed, the Taiwanese do not seem to be aware of the plans for renewable energy in Taiwan. In the RSPRC’s survey, it was also found that 57 percent of the respondents did not know about the government’s 2025 renewable energy target.

President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文)’s DPP government had set a goal of increasing renewable energy use to 20 percent by 2025.

The perplexingly high proportion of the Taiwanese who did not know about this target might have also given rise to their vote in favor of nuclear power.

Only 41 percent knew about this 2025 target.

POWER Magazine suggested that “a blackout on Aug. 15, 2017, apparently helped change many people’s views on nuclear power.”

“The interruption caused all six units at the site to shut down, and 6.6 million households and businesses across the island lost power for more than five hours. At the time, three of Taiwan’s six then-operational nuclear reactors were offline for maintenance. The lack of sufficient reserve power left Taiwan Power Co. in the lurch, unable to make up for the sudden shortfall,” POWER Magazine wrote.

This could have led to voters losing their trust in the government’s energy policies, albeit with many not knowing what they are.

815_unexpected_power_outage_in_Taiwan
Credit: CC BY-SA 4.0
Taiwan's Aug. 15, 2017 blackout may have driven voters to support nuclear power.

The thing is, according to the RSPRC, “the Taiwanese [do feel] that it [is] urgent for Taiwan to undergo energy transition.

“However they [are] also of the opinion that the way policies are currently promoted is chaotic, lacks a coherent strategy and is somewhat unfair,” the RSPRC added.

The truth behind Taiwan’s renewable goals

Perhaps this lack of a coherent strategy might come from the fact that the government is only seen as making “a few small tweaks” which does not make it “economical promising” to produce renewable energy.

Or perhaps just a few days after the referendum, the Bureau of Energy under the Ministry of Economic Affairs, proposed reducing Feed-in-Tariffs (FiTs) for solar power by 12.15 percent and offshore wind projects by 12.71 percent in 2019.

In response, the wind power developers released a joint statement which said that reducing that the FiT “would have a negative impact on Taiwan's reputation in the global market, making it harder for the island to develop related technologies.”

Several solar power trade groups and associations also held a press conference to decry the reduction, saying that the average reduction of 4.25 percent “would significantly affect local development of solar power, given the higher costs required to build projects in Taiwan.”

According to the groups, “the local solar power industry is subject to higher land rent costs and other obligations, such as furnishing incentives to local governments and land owners, environmental conservation and precautions against typhoons, earthquakes and saltwater damage.

“These factors lead to a 30 percent reduction in solar power revenue, [and] the industry would not be able to cope with such steep FIT cuts,” the Taipei Times quoted them as saying.

However, the government had claimed that the FiTs can be reduced because of lower installation costs.

On the one hand, Taiwan already has one of the highest FiTs in Asia, and the high FiTs have been seen as preventing overseas firms from competing in the Taiwan’s market.

On the other hand, Holger Grubel, head of offshore wind-power development for German utility EnBW (Energie Baden-Wurttenmberg AG), had said that Taiwan is still a highly underdeveloped market and high developmental incentives are therefore still needed.

“It’s obviously a very young market,” Grubel said. “There’s nothing [in Taiwan] that we can rely upon. There is no supply chain there. There is no reliable system there. We have to build the export cable to the wind farm ourselves.”

Still, the Ministry of Economic Affairs has said that the proposed increase in FiTs is not set in stone and the review committee is still holding hearings and collating feedback.

Other than on FiTs, it is also seen that even as the government has set a goal of weaning Taiwan off nuclear power, Brian Hioe wrote that, “the Tsai administration quietly approved reactor restarts for nuclear reactors including the Guosheng Nuclear Power Plant last year.”

And on coal-fired power, the Shen’ao Power Plant was decommissioned in 2007 but the government decided to reopen it this year, only to then terminate it again after widespread blowback.

Wind_power
Credit: Maggie Chou / CC BY-SA 3.0
Wind turbines in Kaomei Wetland in Qingshui Township, Taichung County.

Moreover, there is also the question of wages.

While visiting a private residential estate in New Taipei as part of a study trip organized by the RSPRC, I was thoroughly impressed by the solar panels that have been installed on the rooftops, which could generate as much as 60 percent of the energy needs of residences on a good day.

Curious, I also asked the government official present on the issue of wages. I wanted to know if Taiwanese who are only earning a minimum wage of NT$22,000 (US$713.28, set to be raised to NT$23,100 next year) will be put off from using renewable energy because of the high costs of installation involved.

The official explained that in the longer term, the installation of the solar panels will bring net benefits, as even though there are high startup installation costs, the solar energy produced in-house will reduce the electricity prices that the residents would need to pay for other forms of energy.

In fact, the official said that they are identifying new sites to expand the project to install solar panels in other residences, which they project could even deliver 100 percent renewable energy for the estate if there is enough rooftop space.

Taiwanese do not seem to be aware of the plans for renewable energy in Taiwan.

But even so, the payback time, or the time that it would take for the investment costs to be paid back, for the solar installation on rooftops, has been estimated to be 12.34 years, but this would still be quite a wait on a hefty start-up investment.

“In terms of rooftop solar energy, the current state of this area is only economically viable if private citizens are willing to accept a payback period of around 12 years for their investment,” post-doctoral researcher Wu Chi-hua of this study said.

But it is still doable if rooftop solar panels can be done on a large scale, so that the economies of scale could enable the payback period to be shortened, Wu explained. But to do so, banks need to be willing to provide financing to solar energy companies, and the government would need to “create a positive banking landscape that helps enable these companies to keep securing the financing they need to make rooftop solar panels that are economically viable for them, when they might not be economically viable for individual people”, Wu explained.

Indeed, according to the RSPRC’s survey, “80 percent of the respondents were […] willing to install solar panels in their homes and communities, however inadequate installation space and the lack of subsidies to offset initial investments costs are bottlenecks that need to be resolved.”

Speaking at a forum the RSPRC organized last week, on how the pro-nuclear referendum results will impact on Taiwan’s energy transition, Sinogreenergy Group’s Chen Kun-hung also explained that “even though rooftops in Taiwan provide an avenue for solar installation, legislation has prevented solar panels to be installed on some rooftops due to their weak infrastructure.”

Sascha Rossmann, vice president of solar global sales at Winaico, also said: “[The] residential market is not exciting potential [sic] for me because the majority of the roofs here are illegal.”

“Rossmann is referring to households that have a floor added to the top of the house, which makes it illegal to add solar,” PV-Tech, which interviewed Rossmann, said. “These additional floors tend to have a poor structural design creating risks in an environment where the extreme winds of typhoons are common.”

However, Chen added that “one way that his company had worked around this has been to also fund the upgrade of the infrastructure on the rooftop, so as to enable solar panels to be installed on more rooftops.”

He said: “Many companies might balk at having to pay more, but for the sake of sustainable development, he believed that this would be a worthwhile investment that companies should make.”

He therefore “made a call for companies to work together towards sustainable development and energy transition.”

19244990992_3254264f08_k_(2)
Credit: Taiwan Presidential Office
Then-President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) inspects a solar power plant in Taichung on June 27, 2015.

Ultimately, regardless of the government’s plans and commitment by companies, the awareness of the Taiwanese about energy policies in the country is still a key issue that needs to be addressed.

The RSPRC’s survey found that “as the accuracy of [the Taiwanese’s] energy knowledge is not high, this affected the extent to which they were accepting of energy conservation and electricity price adjustments.

“When respondents had higher energy knowledge, they would also be more willing to accept higher electricity prices as a result of energy taxes on fuel oil,” the RSPRC added.

According to the RSPRC, it was also found that even though “there were only about 20 percent of the respondents who were resolutely against any price increases in electricity prices, […] there were also 60 percent of the respondents who were willing to pay higher prices to support replacing nuclear energy with renewable energy.

“But this is lower than the 85 percent in the survey that our center conducted in 2015,” the RSPRC noted.

The link between energy and labor: Lower wages, less support for renewables

If this is true, an interesting question would be why there has been a reduction in the proportion of the Taiwanese who would be willing to pay higher prices

The RSPRC added: “Of the price increase that 48 percent of the respondents were willing to accept, the magnitude of [respondents] increase that they were willing to accept was lower than the estimated financial impact that Taiwan’s energy transition is expected to bring.

“In order to achieve a nuclear-free homeland by 2025, and to reduce air pollution and increase Taiwan’s renewables, 47.9 percent of the respondents were willing to pay high electricity prices in the range of NT$2.7 to NT$3.0. However, according to our center’s estimates and that by the Taiwan Power Company, the increase in electricity prices in 2025 will hover around NT$3.0 to NT$3.5, under the energy transition plan,” the RSPRC said.

If so, encouraging the Taiwanese to go onto renewable energy is not simply about propounding the benefits of renewables. They are also cost-sensitive.

“You want it to eat something, but you don’t want it to shit anything out.” — DPP legislator Chen Man-li on nuclear waste disposal

Having said that, Taiwan’s household electricity costs are already considered low compared to other developed countries. Even so, when compared to countries like South Korea, Singapore and some other European countries, Taiwan’s electricity costs relative to wages are not as low, but would be comparable – in other words, electricity prices are not lower. As such, it would not be unreasonable for the Taiwanese to be concerned about the costs.

I am therefore inclined to think that as long as Taiwan’s wages remain low and the Taiwanese remain less hopeful about their livelihoods vis-à-vis the economic environment in Taiwan, that they would have less appetite to try out renewable energy in spite of the positive impact to the environment, and the possibility of lower costs in the long-term.

As Professor Axel Franzen, Professorship of Empirical Social Research at the University of Bern, and Reto Meyer, explained: “Environmental concern depends on the relative income position within the country.”

“Individuals who live in a relatively high-income household […] report higher concern for the environment than individuals in households with relatively lower income,” they continued. “In addition, […] individuals’ total concern or total willingness to pay for environmental quality increases with income.”

They explained that, “As income increases, budget constraints shift upwards, which allows both for an increase in consumption in general and a higher investment in environmental quality. Thus, as a population becomes wealthier, the demand for higher environmental quality should rise, which, in the aggregate, should result in a positive correlation between a country’s wealth and its level of environmental concern.”

For, as research on poverty has also shown, it is not possible to expect people to think about the long-term benefits to the environment and to their savings from adopting environmentally-friendly measures if people’s economic livelihoods are harsh and they are therefore forced to think short term in order to make ends meet.

Given limited resources, they would therefore be more likely to act in ways we might think illogical.

“They may, for example, choose take out a payday loan in order to pay a bill, even if in the long term, the ballooning interest on the loan will put them deeper in debt,” Jon M. Jachimowicz (Ph.D. candidate at Columbia Business School), Elke U. Weber (Gerhard R. Andlinger professor at the Princeton University), and Jaideep Prabhu (professor at the University of Cambridge) explained.

However, Jachimowicz, Weber and Prabhu added: “But when people in a poor community feel they can count on others to step in and help should they encounter a large loss, they are more likely to take the risk of foregoing the immediate solution for the sake of the big picture.”

Indeed, when asked what measures would encourage them to adopt renewable energy in their neighborhoods, the top two push factors among the RSPRC respondents were if there were suitable incentives (40 percent) and incentives provided by the local government (32 percent).

The strategy to increase renewable energy use in Taiwan therefore needs to go hand in hand with improving the financial situation, and wages, of the Taiwanese, to enable them to increase adoption of renewables.

But it is not just about the investment in citizens.

The RSPRC’s Chief Director, Professor Chou Kuei-tien (周桂田), pointed out another conundrum: “[If] Taiwan’s companies [continue to remain] unwilling to invest to innovate and transit into higher-value production, [this] is not sustainable for Taiwan’s development.”

And with it, the continued low wages in Taiwan, which would present a strong challenge to Taiwan’s ambitions to become a renewable energy hub.

As research on poverty has also shown, it is not possible to expect people to think about the long-term benefits to the environment and to their savings from adopting environmentally-friendly measures if people’s economic livelihoods are harsh.

Therefore, in order to enable Taiwan to successfully implement a long-term renewable energy strategy, it takes two hands to clap – companies need to move up the value chain to innovate while citizens need to earn enough to have the financial resources to partake in the energy transition towards renewable energy.

As it is, even in its efforts to achieve a 20 percent renewable energy target, Taiwan has been slow to move.

Professor Chou pointed out: “Whereas renewable energy as part of Taiwan’s power generation has increased from 4 percent in 2014 to 5 percent in 2017, the increase has been lower than that of other developed countries. Japan’s renewable energy use has increased from 13 percent to 16 percent, whereas in other developed countries, the share of renewables in the power mix has increased to around 15 percent or higher. In Sweden and Germany, renewable energy comprised 58 percent and 34 percent of their power mix, respectively, in 2017.”

He added: “In order to meet the emissions reduction target set by the Paris Agreement, renewable energy use needs to be increased to 80 percent by 2050 globally, however Taiwan’s progress has been slow.”

In the latest Climate Change Performance Index 2019, released by the NGO Germanwatch a few days ago to “track countries’ efforts to combat climate change,” Taiwan was ranked 56th out of 60 countries, because “the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in Taiwan hasn't been reduced and has largely stayed flat from 2010 to 2016,” Focus Taiwan reported, and because Taiwan’s “renewable power generation declined by 2.87 percent last year”, Taipei Times reported, though this was due to the lower rainfall which led to a 17 percent decrease in hydropower generation.

Taiwan was also given a very low rating in the Climate Policy category, which Germanwatch explained was because “Experts [have] criticize[d] the government for lack of ambition in terms of implementing its INDCs and the very poor performance in domestic climate policy.”

Understandably, the pivot towards renewable energy was only seriously pursued under the current Tsai government, so it might contribute to a delay in costs coming down and for renewable energy development to pick up.

But still, it is possible for Taiwan to achieve a 100 percent renewable energy target, some believe.

Hans-Josef Fell, founder and president of Energy Watch Group who wrote the 2000 draft of Germany’s Renewable Energy Sources Act, said that Taiwan can "make it faster, go stronger" to achieve 100 percent renewables by 2030.

Fei_Cuei_Reservoir_and_Fei_Cuei_Power_Pl
Credit: CC BY-SA 4.0
Taiwan's Feitsui Dam and Gueishan Power Plant (bottom right) in New Taipei.

Mark Z. Jacobson, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Stanford University, explained in an open letter: “if the corresponding power generation and energy storage systems are actively developed, with the existing technology, it is feasible for Taiwan to supply 100 percent of its electricity and energy needs with renewable energy by 2050”.

“When Taiwan could be expected to have a thriving solar PV industry and a concentrated solar power industry [a decade from 2013], as well as a world-class smart and strong grid, the current debates over the nuclear option will seem irrelevant,” Macquarie University’s Professor John Mathews and National Tsing Hua University Professor Hu Mei-chih wrote.

And it looks like even companies are coming onboard.

Sinogreenergy Group’s Chen “spoke of a visit that the Apple company had made to his office and had shared that even though Apple is committed to the RE100 100 percent renewable energy goal, that Apple is concerned at the same time that their suppliers might not be able to work towards the same target.”

The RE100 is the 100 percent renewable goal that more than 100 of the world’s most influential companies have pledged to work towards.

Earlier this month, the Chung Hua Institution for Economic Research (CIER) also partnered with RE100 of The Climate Group to encourage more companies to commit themselves to 100 percent renewable energy, by providing the “necessary support” for them to do so.

How energy became politicized on Nov. 24

But at the end of the day, Taiwan’s political dynamics might get in the way of Taiwan’s energy transition.

In its media release, the RSPRC also said that the government has a role to engage in “long-term dialogue” with the citizens, “to prevent our society from descending into an endless series of contradictions and conflicts, which uses political mobilization in replacement of long-term policy planning.”

Speaking at the RSPRC’s forum, Chang Yu-ying, Chairman of Environmental Jurists Association, also “pointed out that referendums should not be used on issues such as energy transition and human rights, as voters can be influenced by populist sentiments when voting for the referendums, and this can be counterproductive.”

Associate Professor Jane Ywe-hwan also said: “Too many political calculations are deployed in referendums with too little explanation from the government, which should have sent out officials to clarify the issues.

“By failing to do this, the government allowed groups that are good at scheming to have their way and exploit the trusting nature of the Taiwanese,” she added.

Indeed, the referendums have shown themselves to be used as a tool by the KMT party in a bid to embarrass the DPP government and President Tsai.

Two out of the three questions on energy-related issues (Questions 7 and 8) were proposed by the KMT, and even the other one on nuclear energy (Question 16) was proposed by groups seen as being close to the KMT, although those groups deny any partisan affiliations.

In fact, even on Question 9 on whether the government should maintain the ban on imports of agricultural products and food from Fukushima, it has been criticized by Frank Hsieh (謝長廷), Taiwan’s representative to Japan, as “a KMT scheme aimed at undermining bilateral relations between Taiwan and Japan.”

This was similarly echoed by the Chief Representative of the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association in Taipei, Mikio Numata, who pointed out that the referendum were “the KMT's efforts to undermine the friendly relations Japan and Taiwan have been working hard to cultivate”.

Japan Times added: “Hsieh did not clearly say that the KMT initiated the referendum just to cause trouble for the DPP. But his message was clear: Taiwan needs to maintain close relations with Japan as it seeks ways to protect itself from an increasingly belligerent China.”

Another sad irony about voters voting in support of Question 9 to ban food from Japan’s Fukushima is that they might have also voted away support from Japan, their main backer, for the Japan-led Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which was meant to boost Taiwan’s trade ties as part of the third largest free trade bloc in the world.

Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Kono has said that Taiwan will now not be able to join the CPTPP. “I feel it is regrettable,” he said.

Question 9 on the banning of food imports was also proposed by the KMT.

That voters voted in contradictory ways to both nuclear energy-related questions suggested that the majority of the voters did not seem to have a thorough understanding of the issues.

Therefore, Associate Professor Jane Ywe-hwan said, “Referendums of this kind could hardly be considered representative of public opinion.

“The government should rely on the knowledge of experts instead of using referendums as an excuse to implement policies,” she added.

RTS279RL
Credit: Reuters / Tyrone Siu
Voters wait in long queues in Kaohsiung to cast their votes on 10 referendums, and elections for regional candidates, on Nov. 24, 2018.

Moreover, it is unlikely that voters had voted for the pro-nuclear referendum based on the outlandish assertions of its convener Huang Shih-hsiu, who had claimed that the Fukushima disaster was not caused by an earthquake because earthquakes do not lead to nuclear disasters, and also the claim that nuclear power has existed in Taiwan for generations.

Taiwan only started constructing its first nuclear plant in 1972. The first plant only started commercial operations in 1978.

Voters therefore most likely aligned their support to the pro-nuclear referendum for other reasons.

As pointed out by Professor Austin Wang from the Department of Political Science at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, he showed that there are “positive correlations” in the “yes” votes to the KMT(-friendly) questions.

Moreover, Daniel Kao, a software developer at The New York Times, showed that among the 10 referendum questions (there were a total of 10 referendum questions that were asked in addition to the three on energy), “it's apparent that most referendum questions went nearly unanimously yes or no.”

As such, as I had written on the referendums on same-sex marriage, it seemed that voters had voted consistently to align themselves with the KMT, and could have used their votes as a form of protest against the DPP government. It should however be noted that a trending of past surveys would show that it was not that support had increased for the KMT, but rather that voters were using the referendums as a tactic to show their displeasure against the DPP’s policies, regardless of what the questions are, it seems.

Unfortunately, the Taiwanese’s concerns over their own livelihoods and possible resultant short-term thinking could also explain why voters were willing to vote against their own interests, and against the DPP.

In effect, voters might not even have considered the energy-related issues and policies, and might have aligned themselves with the populist rhetoric.

Taiwan’s political gridlock therefore is an impediment to Taiwan’s sustainable development, and making use of the referendum to pursue political objectives to the extent of sabotaging Taiwan’s energy transition can only be said to be irresponsible.

That voters voted in contradictory ways to both nuclear energy-related questions suggested that the majority of the voters did not seem to have a thorough understanding of the issues.

But energy policies should not be used as a political tool by the political parties, because it involves the long-term energy security of the country, and with it, the economic lifeline of the country.

I can only surmise that in so doing, it is abhorrent for the KMT to make use of both human rights (same-sex marriage) and people’s livelihoods (energy issues) as a way to game the system.

The referendum criteria was relaxed by the Tsai government this year, in an attempt to live up to the idea of democracy, which allowed the KMT to cash in on the opportunity. The threshold to enable referendums to be initiated and passed was reduced from 5 percent to 1.5 percent of the electorate.

Nonetheless, in spite of the political games that were being played, “Taiwan’s energy transition is still hopeful” if people are given more information about it, Chang Yu-ying said.

Chang added: “even though the RSPRC’s survey showed that a majority of the Taiwanese had misconceptions on Taiwan’s energy policies, on the other hand, there were more than 80 percent of the respondents who were also concerned about Taiwan’s energy transition.”

Solutions for Taiwan’s energy gridlock

Taiwan’s energy transition can therefore still be put on track.

As Professor Chang Wen-chen, Director of Policy and Law Center for Environmental Sustainability at the National Taiwan University, and one of the speakers at the RSPRC’s forum, explained: “Even though the referendum result required the first paragraph of Article 95 of the Electricity Act, which was intended to phase out nuclear energy by 2025, to be abolished, but under another legislation – the Basic Environment Act – nuclear energy would still need to be phased out at some point.”

“In effect, the referendum had only served to delay the phase out of nuclear energy,” she explained.

But the government at all levels (both central and local governance) also needs to step up.

“During the mid-term election which was held alongside the referendums, there were only a third of the county magistrates who had come out with specific energy policies,” the RSPRC pointed out.

They added: “From our survey, we found that the public were concerned with whether county magistrates had plans to provide incentives and rewards to encourage power conservation, as well as to supervise the effectiveness of the power saving measures adopted by businesses.”

As such, in its implementation of its energy policies, the government therefore needs to take into account the price sensitivity of the Taiwanese, their low wages, as well as their awareness level of the government’s efforts.

As the RSPRC said: “We call upon the government to provide a clearer energy transition pathway, to engage in dialogue with society, so as to enhance the trust that the public have towards energy reform.

“Our focus should be placed on enhancing the public’s knowledge on energy-related issues, as well as to emphasize the benefits of price adjustments in air pollution reduction,” it added.

And by improving the financial situation of the Taiwanese, I would add, especially for those among the lower incomes.

Looking at the referendums, the results also show that Taiwanese who have higher incomes were also more supportive of cleaner energy.

On Question 7:

3
Source: rfrd.tw.github.io

On Question 8:

4
Source: rfrd.tw.github.io

In closing, the RSPRC pointed out: “Energy transition is closely aligned to societal transition,” and it therefore “call[ed] on all sectors of society to adopt a more forward-looking perspective to appreciate Taiwan’s climate change and carbon-reduction challenges.”

The RSPRC also said: “The earlier we are able to make a paradigm shift from a brown economy and brown energy model, and to move away from the shackles of social confrontation, the faster we will be able to catch up to the global trend of a low-carbon and green economy model.”

Moving forward, the Ministry of Economic Affairs will be announcing new energy policies within the next two months in response to the referendum results.

To this, Professor Chou cautioned that the revision “has to be done carefully so as to not compromise with Taiwan’s long-term goal of energy transition.”

Moreover, rushing out energy policies within a short two months “disregards the fact that Taiwan’s energy transition is a long-term social project, which requires the sustained innovation in green energy technology and stable government reforms with the view of encouraging behavior change among the general public,” the RSPRC said.

Nonetheless, if the DPP government can take the lessons from its loss at the local mid-term elections, which were held alongside the referendums, and implement clear and consistent policies, while ensuring that the public is made aware of why policies are being done, as well as put a clear focus on improving their economic livelihoods – not just via jobs but also via wages – the government would at least build up a groundswell of support among people for energy transition, and would put Taiwan in a better stead for sustainable development.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely my own and do not reflect the views or opinions of my employer.

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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