All of a sudden the light went out and the equipment stopped working," recalls Chang Chun-chin, a doctor based in Muzha District, in the South of Taipei. "It was about four in the afternoon. I first thought it was a problem in my doctor's practice, so I sent an employee to check the fuse box,” she says. But she couldn't find anything. “I noticed my patients became nervous, but I couldn't really do anything. Soon after, one of them said: 'Look, it seems like the whole street is without electricity.' People started coming into the street to see if their neighbours still had electricity. We didn't know what had happened, but the problem seemed rather big."
At that point on a Tuesday afternoon on 15 August, nobody knew how big the problem was, or what had caused it. Only hours later, would it become clear that the whole island of Taiwan was suffering from a massive power blackout. Millions of homes, offices and factories were left without electricity. The lights came back on at nine that evening.
The Taiwanese government claims that the incident had nothing to do with insufficient power supply, and in fact, the cause was a power station in Taoyuan in the north, where the natural gas supply was abruptly shut off, causing severe power imbalances.
While that may be true, it also throws the spotlight on the government’s efforts to phase out nuclear power, which made up 14% of Taiwan’s electricity last year, by 2025. The target is to raise the share of natural gas in the energy grid to 50 percent, lower the share of coal to 30 percent while the remainder is expected to be raised from renewable sources.
While the intentions are good, the manner in which it is being executed is raising concerns. For instance, while nuclear plants are being mothballed, additional capacity has not been brought online fast enough to make up for the shortfall.
"A nuclear free Taiwan is an important goal for the government,” says Darson Chiu, Research Fellow of the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research. “But the power cut has made Taiwan look less attractive to foreign and even potential domestic investors."
We spoke with Chiu Chuipin (no family of Darson Chiu), General Manager of Wärtsilä Energy Solutions in Taiwan. "The government has set a target. It wants all the nuclear power plants in Taiwan to be retired by 2025. The nuclear power plants are getting old; they're reaching the end of their lifetime. Taiwan now has to choose between expending their lifetime or retire them."
What would he prefer for the future of the island? Nuclear energy, or green energy? "Of course, I support green energy. I think we are able to do it. Taiwan counts 23 million people; it's a small island. It should be possible." Chiu Chuipin points out that Wärtsilä can help improve energy efficiency on the island. "That is what our experts here at Wärtsilä are doing every day. In Taiwan, we do system modelling. We analyse the future of energy and power."
Darson Chiu says that the most important challenges for the future will be to allocate a sufficient budget to specific and feasible plans. "It seems the government is trying to replace nuclear power with fossil fuel power for a transition period. If green energy can be trusted and relied on, they have to hurry up with relevant development."
What happened that afternoon in August in the offices of Wärtsilä in Taiwan? "That particular day I was working in our offices in Beijing," Chiu Chuipin says, "but what I heard is that we didn't suffer too much from the power cut. There wasn't a big impact on the daily operation. We only have offices in Taiwan, no factories, so the only thing that happened was that there was no lighting and computers stopped working after a while. Employees left home early that day."
Doctor Chang Chun-chin remembers she felt rather helpless that night. "There was nothing much I could do," she says. "Initially I told my patients to wait for a while, because I hoped electricity would come back soon. But after half an hour we were still waiting in the dark, and it was becoming very hot in the office without air conditioning, so I told everybody to go home and to come back the day after. As for me, I left my practice as well. I got hungry by that time, but nowhere in the city I could find anything to eat. Restaurants closed their doors, and even the convenient store wouldn't sell anything. I had to wait until late that night. On days like these you remember how much you depend on electricity."