The current (missing) energy crisis

A few days ago, Han Kuo-yu came out with his energy policy. The headlines focused on his plan to restart the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant project, which has been mothballed since the Ma government capitulated in the face of enormous public pressure in 2014. The referendums in 2018 seemed to indicate a new level of popularity for nuclear power, so Han probably thought it would be politically adept to bring the 4Nuke back. It didn’t go well, with New Taipei mayor (and most popular KMT politician in the country) Hou You-yi throwing cold water on the idea and calling it a non-issue.

All this got me to thinking about how much electricity hasn’t been in the news this year. In the past few years, we have had lots of stories about how dangerously low the electricity supply is. This year, I can’t remember reading any of those stories. That is, there doesn’t seem to be an electricity crisis in the political atmosphere that demands a bold/risky solution such as dusting off the rotting 4Nuke plant.

Subjective impressions are a dangerous thing to rely on, so I thought I’d try to find some data. I went to the United Daily News online data base and searched for stories using the term 備轉容量 and 電 (operating reserve and electricity). This search term typically yields stories that say something like:

Yesterday the temperature soared to 38.9C in downtown Taipei, and electricity consumption spiked. At the peak demand, Taipower reported the operating reserve fell to a mere 3.2%. This is horrible and dangerous. The country’s economy is at great risk, and it’s all Tsai Ying-wen’s fault.

Ok, maybe only the first two sentences are typical. Sorry. Please accept my apology, Fan Ling-jia.

Ideally, I wanted to search for the entire summer, but since we still have a month of summer to go, I limited my search to July and August for each year. Then, to see if maybe the fashionable terminology for reporting on this type of story had changed, I tried the same thing using a different term: 供電 and 警 (power supply and alert). This table shows how many stories I found in July and August each year for those search terms:

  備轉容量 and 電

(number of UDN stories)

供電 and 警

(number of UDN stories)

2012 0 24
2013 3 26
2014 14 35
2015 28 46
2016 24 30
2017 119 156
2018 34 11
2019 18 11

These electricity crisis stories peaked in 2017. 2017 was the worst year for power supply, and it also saw a massive blackout in August when one power plant had a mechanical failure and plunged most of the island into a blackout for several hours on a sweltering August day. Lots of the stories in 2017 are about that blackout. Politically, the blackout was a disaster, and it probably caused as much anger and dissatisfaction with the Tsai government as any other cause. (Frozen Garlic’s first rule of governing: Don’t ever, ever let the power go out.)

You will notice that there were still 18 stories this year in UDN with the term “operating reserve.” This is a clear decline from previous years, but it isn’t zero. However, a quick glance through the headlines reveals something interesting about these stories. None of them follow that typical script. Most of them said something to the effect of the “situation is much better this year” or “yesterday was hot, but there was no problem with the power supply.” A few stories even involved Taichung mayor Lu Hsiu-yan arguing that, since power supply was now sufficient, the big Taichung power plant could be closed. None of them screamed, “CRISIS!!!”

You might wonder, is the situation really getting better? Or is the United Daily News getting lazy? It isn’t the latter. Fan Ling-jia, in addition to being a handsome guy and a lousy baseball player, is a demanding boss. If there were a power supply crisis, he’d assuredly tell his editors to cover it in a fair and neutral manner. Or at least some sort of manner.

I found some statistics from the Ministry of Economics, Bureau of Energy. They count the number of days each year that the operating reserve fell below 6%, which is generally considered dangerously low. (They like to have at least 10% and ideally 15%.)

  Days with operating reserve below 6%
2015 33
2016 80
2017 104
2018 29
2019 0

In fact, I found day by day reports from Taipower from June and July, and the operating reserve has only dipped below 10% twice in those two months. The electricity supply situation isn’t anywhere near as tight as it was in 2016 and 2017.

I’m not an expert on energy policy by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t quite understand how much the blend of power sources has changed, how much pollution is produced, or the finances involved. (Hell, even Fan Ling-jia probably understands energy policy better than I do.) However, this little exercise does indicate that Tsai’s promised transformation of the energy sector is bearing the fruit that she promised. She told us the first few years would be difficult, and they were. She also told us that things would get better by the end of her first term, and that seems to be the case.

3 Responses to “The current (missing) energy crisis”

  1. tuzzi Says:

    there is a webpage of Tai-Power where one can conveniently check the power reserve numbers:

    https://www.taipower.com.tw/tc/page.aspx?mid=206&cid=405&cchk=e1726094-d08c-431e-abee-05665ab1c974 (look for “近期備轉容量曲線”)

    It can be seen that starting from some time in May the power reserve number stays consistently over 10. Some new power plants have been added to the grid.

  2. VIENET (René) Says:

    Dear Frozen Garlic,

    You appropriately drew attention, in your earlier blog postings, to the clear vote in the recent referendum favoring nuclear power in Taiwan, and to the government’s statement the following day discounting that vote. This open and rather arrogant dismissal of the voters’ decision will have consequences, including for a number of anti-blue voters who support in principle the majority of the DPP platform, but who do not approve of the DPP’s ultra-green dogma and quasi-religious hostility toward nuclear power.

    Apart from the significance of this expression of arrogant contempt for the voters’ will reflected in a bona fide democratic vote, and apart from the possible future electoral consequences flowing from this stance, it may be of interest  (for another perspective on Taiwan’s elections, wedge issues and points of leverage) to draw attention to a few background factors. The fluctuating understandings >< misunderstanding by voters could lead to results unanticipated by pollsters, but are still worth careful consideration by analysts. Taiwan being a rather mature democracy, one can expect that a clearcut stance on energy issues can translate into votes.

     Each Kwh from renewables requires an equivalent one Kwh from fossil fuels. In the case of Taiwan, which has no piped-natural-gas (just vessel-transported LNG), this means the necessity of burning polluting coal (rather than no-pollution-just-CO2 LNG). The reason is that Taiwan enjoys no flexibility with respect to its supply of LNG supply. Taiwan is tied down rigidly by 20-year contracts, with the result that LNG tank farms cannot provide more than a few days of reserves and only the tiniest flexibility. This is why, worldwide, coal exporters support wind farms.  Hence one can appreciate the popular saying that expresses this in a small vulgarism: “with wind-electricity output a strong burnt-coal stinking fart is sure to follow.” Furthermore, wind farms require subsidies by consumers and taxpayers. The degree to which this is fully grasped will have an appreciable impact on the coming election results. All over the world, folks have started to throw shit (not in the proverbial fans but quite literally) in the wind-turbines. This day will also predictably come to Taiwan, with electoral consequences.

    * More and more voters resent the highly expensive mothballing of LungMen N reactors 7 & 8, which are fully paid for and operational. The resulting loss is far in excess of the US$ 10 billion expended for the protracted construction and delivery.

    * There is an even more sensitive issue: ChinShan 1 & 2 and KuoSheng 3 & 4 N units have been phased out, but the government has failed to adopt – perhaps one could say blocked — an optimal solution for the excessive accumulation of nuclear spent fuel in the four over-saturated NSF pools. One looks in vain to find a comparable situation in the rest of the world. Not only will this will make problematic the planned decontamination and decommissioning [D&D] of the units, it may postpone and ultimately make impossible the necessary actions.  

    But there is even worse to be expected (for the DPP) : If a good book  (and web program) were made available in Chinese in Taiwan, it would discomfit many of the anti-nuclear power opinion leaders. For example, the Fukushima nuclear accident occurred not because of the reactor per se, but because of the NSF pools, which were only at 30% level of their maximal capacity (whereas the Taiwan 4 units in ChinShan and KuoSheng are at an incredible 150%). As you remember, the Fukushima pools cooling system was interrupted by the tsunami cutting its needed electricity supply, and the diesel back-up system, owing to faulty positioning, was submerged under water and failed. In Taiwan’s northern coastal area, the risk of a tsunami is low and the back-up system is different. Even so, why utilize – out of common sense – over needless extended years – a storage system which requires active cooling, instead of a passive dry-storage system?

    When I refer to over-saturated pools, I allude to facts that the Taiwan population at large presently ignores. But I suspect that public opinion would be incensed to discover (with electoral consequences — your concern) the scandal : all over the world, reactor pools are not storage-pools but transfer-pools intended for a short but flexible period of cooling before moving NSF either in dry storage (as in the US), or for recycling (as in France and about six other countries, such as Japan). In the Taiwan 4 Northern reactors pools,  the over-concentration of accumulated NSF rods determined a more compact than usual geometry for baskets, modified water chemistry, accrued cooling systems, and structural reinforcement of the civil works. But the worst was yet to come : Once France refused to recycle all the accumulated TPC NSF (by the years 1998-2000), it was necessary for TPC (under AEC approval …) to consider waiving the core-reserve standard rule : now, should it become necessary, there is no room to unload the  (four) nuclear cores from reactors to the (four) pools. 

    The KMT’s then-elected local magistrate for New Taipei Eric Chu LiLun rejected TPC’s already built interim-on-site-dry-storage — for good reasons,, as it would have implied in fact the NSF staying in Taipei New City for ever.  An optimal solution exists, which would replicate the option preferred and implemented by a comparable country: Switzerland, which has 5 nuclear reactors (Taiwan has 6), has a similarly educated population, and has not yet decided to go on with NFS overseas recycling. The Zwilag Centre (near Basel and Zurich) for dual-use transportation-and-storage casks is a very simple and convincing model — which the DPP has chosen to ignore.  Transportation, and subsequent storage (in the same casks) at the available MaAnShan TPC site, would be easy to implement, would avoid all risks, would be economical, and would remain open to any later downstream options.  Once voters discover and reflect on all this, one can imagine voting shifts of some significance.

    *

    Of course, these nuclear issues — whatever their potential influence upon voters’ choices — are admittedly of small import compared with the positive impact on the DPP’s electoral prospects (including President Tsai’s reelection) of the unfolding tragedy in Hong Kong.

    Best regards,
    René Viénet.
    2019 09 01

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