Energy Transition in-the-Making: How Offshore Wind Energy Interacts with Local Society in Taiwan

Written by Tsaiying Lu.

Image credit: Taichung, Taiwan by Andy Enero/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Go Nuclear to go green.” Under this catchphrase, during Taiwan’s 2018 referendum, pro-nuclear activists have successfully framed green energy as “unstable” and “unmatured” electricity-generating technology. They proposed to abolish Section 1 of Article 95 of the Electricity Act, which states terminating all nuclear power plants by 2025, was passed with a 40.27% approval. The result is a significant setback not only to President Tsai Ing-Wen’s (2016-2024) energy policy, “Nuclear-Free Homeland by 2025,” but also to offshore wind energy’s (OWE) development. Subsequently, the increasing public pressure on the government’s renewable subsidies of feed-in-tariff for OWE led to a halt of OWE developers’ investment decision in early 2019.

The nuclear supporters’ framing strategy shows how discussions, which narrow renewable energy’s development to only technical issues—while neglecting the large-scale transformations accompanying renewable energy infrastructure—is a mistake. From the 2018 referendum to the recent “green conflict” between Taoyuan alga reef and liquefied natural gas plant, these debates risk framing renewable energy in only pro-environment terms. There is an incentive to expand our socio-technical understanding, along with exploring energy choice implications.

In consideration of increasing renewable energy capacities, how realistic is the prospect of energy transition in local society? Taking the Danish developer Ørsted’s Greater Changhua Southeast project as an example, the surrounding controversies and interests suggest a much more complex picture between power system, landscape, and local society.

For example, by supporting Tsai’s policy, the incumbent administration of Changhua County Government expected to attract foreign investment and funds from the central government to improve critical infrastructure such as fishery ports and roads and, in turn, to gain public support for the next term. Meanwhile, local fishermen protested the offshore wind farms (OWF) for eclipsing their operation area, in line with environmental NGOs’ objection to its possible damage to marine ecology. The invoked controversies indicate that renewable energy infrastructure as the material foundation for Taiwan’s energy transition challenges nuclear energy’s priority and the extant power relationships at sea and society.

I draw my insights from Van der Vleuten’s theoretical reflection on the Large Technical System (LTS) approach to understanding technology and society’s configuration. Van der Vleuten (2004) underlines the materiality of LTS and discusses simultaneous societal implications with the development of LTS over a long-time span within four categories: design and construction phase, intrinsic system properties, second-order LTS, and consumer choices. The first two categories refer to the social changes due to the potentiality and constraints of the technical features of LTS. The second-order LTS entails the outsourcing alignment with other infrastructures, which generates chain effects leading to larger-scale societal change. As for consumer choices, it refers to the possible alteration of consumer behaviours due to the repositioning of LTS.

Van der Vleuten’s approach broadens LTS’ analytical strategy from following system builder’s decisions to discuss emerging technology’s capability to interconnect with or re-arrange an existing socio-technical environment. This perspective navigates this paper to explain OWE’s implications from its materiality and its ability to interconnect with local society. By analysing their conflicts and negotiations, the unveiled power struggles suggest that the joining energy infrastructure might offer an opportunity for tackling insufficient conservation measures and the declining fishery economy.

First, as the system builder, Ørsted conducted prior assessments to make OWE’s impact “visible” through scientific data and, thus, manageable. Meanwhile, the presented marine spatial conflicts due to the opaque fishery management and limited marine preservation measures are brought to the surface. Second, Ørsted utilised the materiality of WTGs and turned them from a controversial artefact into an observation base to ease tensions. In so doing, the installed devices for monitoring and data collecting resulted in socio-technical changes.

These changes include enhancing Taiwanese humpback dolphin research, establishing a supervising group where the environmental NGOs’ voices are valued, a marine protected area, and the personnel training system for Taiwan Cetacean Observer. Third, in exchange for the support of Changhua Fishermen’s Association and Changhua County Government, the OWE system was connected with the second-order LTS, the fishery management system. From developing the multifunctional fishing port, fishing facility in deeper waters to challenging the fishery association’s power structure, the OWE system co-evolved with the local fishery economy.

The presented OWE’s development shows the complex socio-technical changes of the renewable energy infrastructure. In so doing, this article argues that energy infrastructure implications should not be taken only technically or individually from stakeholders’ views. Energy transition in practices refers to how new energy technology tackles a series of local society conflicts. By examining critical moments of assessment, design and construction, and linking to the second-order LTS, this work presents an evolving energy system amid the spatial and interests’ contests entangled with fishing gears, power generators local politics.

Tsaiying Lu is a PhD candidate, History, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Maastricht University.

This article was published as part of EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan special issue. All articles in the special issue can be found here.

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