Taiwan will elect its next president Saturday. The most important issue—viewed from this side of the Pacific—is how the newcomer will manage Taipei’s relations with China. In Taiwan, however, economic matters remain at the forefront of voters’ minds, as they tend to elsewhere. In fact, according to a poll from Taiwan’s Election and Democratization Study, economic development ranks as the top issue, with 34 percent selecting it as the most pressing, versus 18 percent for cross-strait relations.
In the economic domain, energy stands out as a high-leverage issue on which the candidates disagree. Lai Ching-te is the candidate for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the current vice president, and the frontrunner, with a polling lead of about 5 points. Should he win, Lai would inherit the energy policy of his boss, President Tsai Ing-wen, which has jeopardized Taiwan’s energy security.
Tsai’s electricity plan, for example, unveiled after her first election in 2016, called for a generation mix of 50 percent natural gas, 30 percent coal, and 20 percent renewables by 2025—a radical change from the mix at the time, when coal generated 45 percent of power, natural gas about 30 percent, nuclear about 12 percent, and renewables less than 5 percent. Tsai’s administration has already had to revise downward its renewables goal, and the emphasis on natural gas creates concerns of its own. But the most damaging element of the policy is the elimination of nuclear power, which would worsen the fragility of Taiwan’s power grid if pursued to completion. Taiwan’s three nuclear power plants were built in the 1980s. The elder two, Jinshan and Kuosheng, were taken offline during Tsai’s presidency; the third, Maanshan, is slated for retirement by the end of next year. All three plants have the technical capability to remain in operation for decades. A fourth plant, Lungmen, was built but never started operations due to the same wave of post-Fukushima nuclear anxiety that anchored Tsai’s plan.
As an electricity-intensive economy owing to its world-beating manufacturing sector, Taiwan needs every watt it can get. Instead, the DPP is cutting off an eighth of the island’s power based on faulty environmental reasoning. As blackouts continue to plague Taiwan, the state utility, Taipower, has embarked on a grid-resilience program. A satisfactory grid for Taiwan, however, would require not only more straws but also more juice. Following a costly 2021 blackout, a Taipower spokesman conceded this fact, saying: “We calculate our expected electricity needs based on historical demand, but yesterday’s demand was much higher and was not far from the all-time record.”
Tsai’s outlook is no anomaly within the DPP. At the time of the party’s founding, anti-nuclear activism was bound up with the pro-democracy movement. To the DPP’s progenitors, nuclear was inextricably linked with the politics of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who oversaw the 1980s nuclear buildout. Though last year Lai indicated that, in an emergency scenario (such as a Chinese blockade), he would support turning reactors back on, the DPP hastened to clarify that the party platform still calls for a “nuclear-free homeland.”
Hou Yu-ih is Lai’s leading challenger for president. Hou, mayor of New Taipei City, is the candidate of the pro-nuclear Kuomintang (KMT). In August, he laid out a starkly different energy vision from that of the DPP, proposing to keep the Maanshan nuclear plant running, to re-commission Jinshan and Kuosheng, and even to start the dormant Lungmen. His targets are for nuclear and renewables combined to eclipse 50 percent of power generation by 2035, with natural gas contributing 45 percent. Hou shares the DPP view that coal is harmful to local air quality and should be phased out.
Third-party candidate Ko Wen-je is also a nuclear advocate and has helped drive the issue, even as he has slid in the polls in recent weeks. Ko criticized Hou’s stance as hypocritical last month, pointing to the New Taipei City mayor’s opposition to nuclear waste storage in his jurisdiction. Pulling no punches, Ko also warned Lai that his nuclear phase-out would cost him the election by alienating Taiwan’s industrial community.
Germany’s Energiewende—its now 23-year-old plan to decarbonize the economy—provides a preview of what could await Taiwan if it continues down the no-nuclear path. Heavily manufacturing-dependent like Taiwan, Germany hobbled itself by depending on imported natural gas and renewables amid regional geopolitical strife.
Though its population is under 25 million, Taiwan is an economic powerhouse and a vital node in global trade networks. Tsai’s energy plans have been out of step with the island’s need. Whichever candidate prevails Saturday, the election should catalyze a critical energy reset.