An indigestible feast? A multi-scalar approach to the energy transition in Taiwan

Written by Ker-Hsuan Chien

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Whilst current, global efforts in energy transition have driven up renewable energy generation around the world, this growth in renewable energy is often accompanied by the understated, increased dependency on natural gas. This paper therefore re-engages transition study and the geographical focus of scale to delineate how energy transition is negotiated, translated and exercised at three scalar networks, namely international supply chains, national development plans, and local electrical systems. By proposing a multi-scalar approach in the scrutiny of Taiwan’s energy transition, this paper stresses on three arguments. First, the energy transition is not a unified process. It is being sifted through the negation process between different actors, being translated and implemented at different scalar networks. Second, the variegated translations of the energy transition will co-create the trajectory of the energy transition, and often lead to unexpected outcomes. Finally, by delineating the scalar relations that energy transition is construed in, energy transition can thus be comprehended as the outcomes at different levels, informing the sequential policy making process.


In a special report published in 2011, the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggested that the world might be entering a ‘Golden Age of Gas’. With unconventional natural gases such as coalbed methane and shale gas, development grew rapidly in countries such as Australia and the US, where the supply of natural gas appears abundant. Together with the production of conventional, recoverable sources, global, natural gas resources are estimated to be able to sustain today’s production for more than two hundred and fifty years [1].

Yet, the abundance of natural gas is not the only reason its consumption has been boosted in the world. Since gas turbines have relatively low carbon emissions, compared to the ones fueled by coal [2], this makes natural gas a ‘bridge fuel’ [3], [4], providing a short-term replacement for coal in the current energy system, buying valuable time for renewable energy technologies to catch up, and bringing the world to a low-carbon future. Furthermore, since air pollution has gradually become an important issue in developing countries like China and India, generators which combust natural gas are widely employed, given that they produce less air pollutants, such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5), sulfur oxides, and nitrogen oxides [5]. As a result, we are witnessing an abrupt growth of natural gas consumption in the world (Fig. 1). A recent report from the IEA [6] pointed out that natural gas accounted for 45% of the increase in global energy demand in 2018.

While some researchers [3], [4] argue natural gas can play a significant role in mitigating carbon emissions, others have pointed out that emissions from natural gas have no displacement effect on emissions from coal [8]. Furthermore, the vested interests reside in incumbent technologies, the sunk investments in infrastructures, and the habitual energy consumption of individuals could all contribute to the carbon lock-in at institutional, infrastructural, and individual behavioural levels [9]. For instance, given that renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, are often intermittent, subject to daily fluctuations, or seasonal weather changes, different measures are employed to stabilise the energy system, making sure energy remains accessible at any given moment. Natural gas therefore provides critical system security in the energy transition towards employing more sustainable energy sources. Since gas-fired generators are expeditious in responding to the sudden change in residual demand resulting from renewable power variation, it has become the natural ally for the stochastic wind power in Britain’s electricity market [10]. In an analysis of 26 OECD countries between 1990 and 2013, Verdolini et al. [11] further pointed out that modern fossil fuel technologies (e.g. gas generation technologies, Combined Heat and Power and Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle) are essential to mitigate the variability of renewable energy sources. Countries where modern fossil fuel technologies were available tended to invest more in renewable energy generation. This natural gas lock-in could jeopardize the long-term goal of carbon neutrality if the retrofitted, carbon-capture, storage, and utilization technologies are not deployed in time [6], [12].

The Taiwanese Government has taken on an ambitious plan to lessen its dependence on both nuclear energy and fossil fuels. The energy system in Taiwan has recently undergone a rapid reconfiguration to increase its renewable power generation from 5.1% of its total generation in 2016, to 20% in 2025 [13], [14]. This transition plan includes a rise of gas-fired power generation from 36% to 50% [13], [14]. As shown in Fig. 2, whilst the deployment of renewable energy is expected to grow speedily, the projected deployment of natural gas will grow even faster in the next few years. These projected trends show some similarity with the ones in the OECD, although Taiwan’s electrical power system is state dominated, and disconnected from any cross-border systems. Taiwan and other countries in the OECD are all facing the same challenge in increasing system flexibility to cope with the further penetration of intermittent, renewable energy. Therefore, by delineating Taiwan’s increasing dependency on natural gas during the energy transition, the complementary role of natural gas generation technologies can thus be emphasized in the discussion of energy transition.

In order to further understand the natural gas dependency in energy transition, this paper therefore examines the energy transition as a socio-technical transition, through which different interests were aligned, regulations were negotiated, and policies were implemented. Such interactions between different actors were embedded in different social and economic relations. This paper therefore develops a multi-scalar approach to illuminate the way the state, international firms, and utilities translated and responded to the energy transition at different scalar networks, and how the outcomes from these scalar networks co-shaped the process of the energy transition in Taiwan.

This paper thus contributes to the current discussion of energy transition in three ways. First, this paper points out that the increasing employment of renewable energy in a fossil-fuel based, electrical power system may not lead to the elimination of fossil fuels. Instead, this reconfiguration may lead to further dependency on particular forms of fossil fuel technologies, jeopardizing the goal of the Paris Agreement to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Second, by focusing on the existing energy system, which includes generation technologies, firms, infrastructures, and governing authorities, under the current trajectory of the energy transition this paper demonstrates how the existing actors negotiate and adapt through the transition process. Instead of starting to decline, or being phased-out, the existing actors may also reinvent their role in the energy transition. Third, by adopting the multi-scalar approach, and bringing scales into the discussion of this socio-technical transition, the energy transition can thus be delineated as a negotiation process between different environmental objectives, economic incentives, and the energy technologies from different networks.

This paper is organized as follows. After the introduction, this paper will first demonstrate how scales may contribute to the current discussion in transition studies. This paper then explicates how the multi-scalar approach is developed to delineate the interpretation and actualization of the energy transition at different scalar networks. With the case of Taiwan’s energy transition, this paper demonstrates how the energy transition is being translated in the context of global value chains, national economic upgrading, and infrastructural reconfiguration. This paper concludes that the multi-scalar approach is essential to understand the divergent/convergent process of the energy transition.

This article was published as ScienceDirect. You can find all articles in the special issue here.

Ker-Hsuan Chien

Research Fellow and Codirector in Value Chain Analysis Research Team