Restrictions and Challenges to Solar Photovoltaic Development in Agricultural Facilities in Taiwan

Restrictions and Challenges to Solar Photovoltaic Development in Agricultural Facilities in Taiwan

Julia Wang(China Productivity Center Agricultural Innovation Department)

Going southward on a high-speed rail trip, one can easily notice the photovoltaic panels installed on the roofs of many buildings. Net-zero carbon emissions and zero-carbon economy are commonly set as goals of energy transformation in the international community. Mechanisms like trade regulations and carbon tariffs are developed to accelerate the transformation of upstream and downstream industries.

The increasing demand for green electricity has made it necessary to take stock of and develop various potential energy sources. Green energy has been promoted in various industries and general housing, and agricultural land, which accounts for a large proportion of land, is certainly of no exception.

Since the amendment of the "Regulations Governing the Review of Application of Structuring Farming Facilities on Agricultural Land" in 2013, various measures of agricultural green energy are promoted, such as biogas power on pig farms, solar photovoltaics in agricultural water areas, solar photovoltaics in agricultural facilities, and fishery and electricity symbiosis, etc. The power capacity has accumulated to 2,000 MW by 2021. At the Conference of Net Zero Emission Strategies for Agriculture in early 2022, the goal was announced to pursue self-sufficiency of agricultural electricity with surplus electricity for sale. This would ensure the sustainability of agricultural development and increase the income of farmers and fishermen.

This article will discuss the current situation and dilemma of green energy development of agricultural production, storage and marketing facilities (referred to as agricultural facilities).

Preliminary Inventory of Agrophotovoltaic System

After heated discussion on the controversy of turning farmland into use for photovoltaic purposes, the target capacity of rooftop photovoltaic facilities was raised twice up to 8GW, and that of ground photovoltaic facilities was reduced to 12GW. In 2020, the Agriculture and Food Agency started a survey of the agricultural facilities, large vegetable and fruit storage yards, and government crops warehouses approved by local governments to further understand the willingness of the facility owners to install photovoltaic panels and to track the progress of the installation. In addition to understanding the status and analyzing the current problems, the objectives are to popularize the knowledge of green electricity and to gradually realize the ideal of agrophotovoltaics.

In our contact with the facility owners, several key factors to the success of photovoltaic panel installation are found. They include the characteristics of the agricultural facilities, the mentality of farmers toward green energy and their own business, the position of government agencies, and the limitation of key resources. They are further discussed in the next section.

The agrophotovoltaic facilities surveyed are mostly large in size and have been in operation for years, such as storage and packaging plants, government crops warehouses, processing plants, mushroom cultivation plants, etc. The business operation mode is mainly for electricity generated and sold to Taipower. These facilities have the advantage of sufficient roof space to enjoy higher cost-effectiveness. In contrast, there are still cases where the promotion is less successful as a result of different factors.

The characteristics, limitations and dilemmas of agrophotovoltaic development

● Redtapes in administrative procedures

The policy of green energy in agriculture is based on the principle of "agriculture as the center and green energy as added value." To ensure stable agricultural production, installation of photovoltaic panels on the roof is permitted only if the agricultural output is maintained at no less than 70% of the national average in three years before the green energy equipment is installed. This involves the verification of agricultural operation history and means additional formalities for agricultural facilities when applying for photovoltaic panel installation. Moreover, the review and verification standards of the different local government agencies may not be consistent, as there is insufficient experience in dealing with the cases. All these may complicate the communication and time cost in application, particularly in the early stage of the application.

● Conservative attitude of farmers and low information transparency

Taiwan's agriculture is highly weather-dependent. Farmers always have to take certain risks and even bear the pressure of loans. Many of them feel no concerns of matters other than farming itself. Besides, there are currently no government subsidy programs for rooftop photovoltaic panels on agricultural facilities, which is a main reason for the low interest and motivation. Another common concern is the possible hazards of the photovoltaic panels to the environment and human health. Therefore, photovoltaic panel installation is hardly a priority for the facility owners.

As said above, optoelectronics is a totally unfamiliar idea for many farmers, who are at the disadvantage of information flow and exchange and may suffer losses as they have poor judgment to protect their rights and interests and therefore have little trust and confidence in the operators and even the whole green energy industry.

● Diverse types of agricultural facilities with different characteristics and constraints

Agricultural facilities may be withdrawn from the list of potential photovoltaic panel users, due to their different uses or types of construction. For instance, storage rooms are usually too small and have unstable structures. Roofs of processing plants are often reserved for other uses, like for sun drying of tea leaves. The high amount of dusts in rice mills reduces the efficiency of photovoltaic panels and requires frequent cleaning. Crops in greenhouses require light themselves. The current regulation on photovoltaic panels is to have 40% as the upper limit of shading, but the effect of shading on the growth of different crops still requires further empirical studies. Illegal rooftop construction is another common problem. Photovoltaic panel installation on most illegally constructed structures on residential buildings is tolerated, but it is still not allowed on agricultural facilities based on the afore-mentioned principle of "agriculture as the center and green energy as added value." The owner must modify the construction to the legal status so as to qualify for installation.

● Insufficiency of natural environment and societal conditions

Facilities at an area with a long rainy season are certainly at an inherent disadvantage. Besides, scattered agricultural facilities or those not large enough in space cannot meet the required scale of profitable operation. Therefore, the scattered and small-scale facilities need to grow and consolidate to a certain scale to have photovoltaic panels installed.

An example of the societal disadvantages is that feeders of Taipower are often in short supply. The ever-lowering rate of the purchase price also lowers the willingness of farmers to install the photovoltaic panels. In addition, factors like changes in international trade policies and the Covid-19 pandemic cause the shortage of supply and rise of cost of raw materials and components of the solar photovoltaic system. This has delayed the progress of installation of existing projects and made some potential participating plants take a hesitant attitude.

Conclusions and Prospects: Flexibility, Standardization and Transparency of Agrophotovoltaic Development

The development of solar photovoltaics in agricultural facilities is still in its infancy in Taiwan. It is promoted as a general trend, but the cost and time required for photovoltaic panel installation, from initial application to actual construction, still poses a high threshold. Government support is therefore indispensable. The measures in practice include the following: assistance to apply to Taipower for reservation of feeder capacity and assistance of reference to professional solar optoelectronic operators. The Bureau of Agricultural Finance has a “NT$ Ten Billion Green Agriculture Loan Project”, with its application deadline extended from the end of 2021 to the end of 2022.

The agrophotovoltaic development requires a consensus on the priority of quality rather of quantity. The review standards and policies need to be constantly adjusted. Observation and review from various perspectives and communication with stakeholders are needed to optimize the overall development strategies, application process, and relevant measures. Then there are substantial incentives for agrophotovoltaics to lower the entry threshold.

In our survey, either by telephone or in briefing sessions, quite some opinions and suggestions are received. For one thing, it is suggested that standardized model structures can be designed for those who intend to build new facilities, so as to eliminate the need for possible subsequent workload. Matching platforms can be established and optimized to providing open, transparent and highly credible information and professional consulting services, to help promote the agrophotovoltaic market. Online and offline briefing sessions can be arranged in collaboration with local farmers’ organizations to more effectively reach the potential participants. As for the initial construction cost of the equipment, various programs such as state subsidies and citizen fundraising can help farmers reduce the financial burden.

We look forward to seeing more successful cases of agrophotovoltaic application, which serve as the exemplary benchmark of the sustainable development of Taiwan.