Turning Up the Heat

Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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Like other forms of renewable energy, the solar power industry is undergoing increased international demand as concerns over global climate change mount and as the price of crude oil rises. Taiwan is looking to harness this growing demand to spur its solar power industry to even greater heights.

The photovoltaic process is the conversion of solar power into electricity. Taiwan's photovoltaic industry has been growing at a fast rate, tripling its output value between 2005 ($216m) and 2006 ($655m). This year's project output value is expected to increase by more than 80%, with brisk growth anticipated in the years to follow.

Solar cells, the devices that convert light into energy, are composed of several thin layers of semi-conducting material, usually silicon. Taiwan's current solar cell energy output is estimated to be above 300 MW, up from 177.5 MW in 2006. Taiwan's production of traditional silicon-based solar cells has been able to leverage the island's existing capability and expertise in the solid semiconductor industry. Likewise the island's established thin film transistor liquid crystal display (TFT-LCD) industry has been a benefit to the production of next-generation thin-film solar cells.

Big Sun Energy Technology, a Taiwan-based solar cell producer, plans to triple its annual solar cell capacity from the current 30 megawatt peak (MWp) to 90 MWp in late 2008. Taiwan-based solar cell producer Gintech Energy will more than quadruple its total output between this year (61 MWp) and 2008 (250 MWp) and is expecting to more than double its number of company clients from 21 to 45. Gintech recently announced that its entire output for 2008 has already been booked. In terms of total capacity, the company expects this to reach 1,500 MWp by 2011, aiming to be among the global top three groups by that date.

This month Switzerland's Bank Sarasin & Co released its fifth report on the industry, Solar Energy 2007, in which it predicts annual growth rates of 50% for global photovoltaic cell production in the next three years. According to the bank, "the prospects for the global solar market have continued to improve now that various obstacles, such as the bottleneck in the silicon supply or the lack of subsidy programmes, have been removed".

To date the solar industry has been regarded as expensive in comparison to other forms of renewable energy such as wind and has relied heavily on government subsidies or incentives. As developments and technological improvements are made, particularly in the domain of thin-film solar cell production, costs are now falling. Some analysts believe that with such reductions in costs, with a decade solar power could compete on price terms with conventional forms of electricity.

The ministry of economic affairs (MOEA) sees great potential in Taiwan's solar cell industry, which will become the world's fourth top producer this year. The ministry believes the country could eventually place first or second, as in the last decade, solar cell research and development has received $21.6m of government funding. The sector has also received $618.2m in private investment.

In October the MOEA held a forum to discuss key concerns for the solar power industry. Issues raised included the importance of government help in strengthening links with international players, creating an industry with added value and the current ban on sourcing solar cell materials from China. Encouraging domestic demand was also stressed as an important source of industry growth.

In a drive to expand domestic demand for solar energy, Taiwan is looking to several government initiatives. In 2008 municipalities will receive subsidies of almost $1m each to set up pilot photovoltaic buildings. By 2015, the government would like to see more than 100,000 domestic households with installed solar cell devices, raising the island's total installed capacity to 320 MW, compared to 2004's 0.5 MW.

New players are entering the industry, with the number of Taiwanese companies having tripled this year to more than 20. With growing competition, not only in Taiwan but globally, the demand for raw materials used in production has risen sharply, creating the recent bottleneck in supply. As securing raw materials plays a key role in enabling the growth of the industry, Taiwan is eager to increase local production of photovoltaic materials.

Steve Chen, Taiwan's minister of economic affairs, was reported as saying that the government is aggressively pursuing potential investment from REC Solar, a division of REC Group, one of the world's largest solar companies. Taiwan is keen to beat out competitor countries Korea, Malaysia and Singapore as the chosen location for the company's new polysilicon fabrication plants. Media reports say REC is planning to invest between $30m and $60m in setting up facilities on 100 hectares of land, should it choose Taiwan as its destination. A team from REC visited Taiwan recently to meet with officials and undertake an assessment, with a final decision from REC expected in December.

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