07:56 7 March 2017
FEATURE: Taiwan's Penghu islands say no to casinos, yes to green energy, turtles
By Ko Shu-ling
TAIPEI, March 7, Kyodo
Flying into Magong Airport on Taiwan's Penghu Island, it is hard not to notice nine large rectangular objects on the ground across from the main terminal, just where one would expect to see the airport parking lot.
Indeed, it is the parking lot, and the gently curving panels are photovoltaic power stations erected above it.
They were installed by the Penghu County government to generate electricity for local use, with the excess to be sold to Taiwan's state-run power utility after an underwater cable connecting Penghu and Taiwan proper is completed.
At a time when governments worldwide are finally beginning to take solar seriously as a source of energy, it is hardly surprising to find Penghu County doing so too.
But unlike megaprojects in China and the United States meant to produce clean energy on a scale comparable to giant centralized nuclear and coal-fired power plants, Magong Airport's solar panels are part of an effort in Taiwan to develop smaller-scale technologies and integrate them with local communities in ways that compliment rather than overturn traditional ways of life.
Penghu has become a laboratory for such development, with green energy at once everywhere and nowhere on the six large and 84 small islands that make up the archipelago located about 40 kilometers off the southwest coast of Taiwan.
Even when they are obvious, installations like Magong's solar panels or the windmills of various shapes and sizes that dot the islands have become attractions for environmentalists and eco-tourists looking for insights into the evolving future of sustainability.
Called the Pescadores by visiting Portuguese in the 1500s, Penghu was occupied briefly by the Dutch in the 1600s, and later by the local Zheng Kingdom (1661-1683) and China's Qing Dynasty (1683-1895), before being ceded to Japan in 1895, which ruled them along with Taiwan until 1945.
Fishing and to a lesser degree agriculture have long been Penghu's main sources of income.
Recent decades have seen a growing interest in tourism, however, as the island's some 100,000 residents seek a higher standard of living and jobs to retain young people often lured away by better opportunities on Taiwan proper.
But jobs or no jobs, Penghu voters have been clear about the kind of tourism they wish to see on their island.
Last year, 81 percent rejected a proposal to allow casinos to operate on the islands. Most, like Penghu bed and breakfast owner Lee Hsien-ning, cited the negative effects of legalized gambling on the close-knit community.
Residents have been more positive about green initiatives, which began in 2001 with a program to erect high-capacity wind turbines. In 2011, plans were announced for an undersea cable connecting Penghu's electrical grid to that of the main island of Taiwan.
Around the same time, former President Ma Ying-jeou's administration launched a low-carbon project to promote the use of electric motorcycles, smart home devices, and LED street lights, along with conservation programs to plant trees and improve water management.
Such efforts received a boost last year with the election of President Tsai Ing-wen, whose campaign platform included pledges to end nuclear power generation on Taiwan by 2025, and to make green energy one of the county's five key innovative industries of the future.
To facilitate the initiatives, the legislature recently passed legal revisions that allow private energy producers to sell electricity directly to the public, bypassing state-owned utility Taiwan Power Co., thus encouraging the kind of technological entrepreneurialism at which Taiwanese have long excelled.
In addition to cheap power, planners expect Penghu to gain hundreds of skilled, well-paying new jobs, especially with its Science and Technology University offering a growing array of related courses in the College of Marine Resources and Engineering, according to Fang Shyang-chyuan, a professor at NPU and former deputy head of Penghu's Department of Environmental Protection.
Once again, these jobs will not turn Penghu into a hub for industrialized energy production, but rather a community that is significantly reducing its dependence on fossil fuels through public education and the development of small-scale technologies that can be exported to other parts of Taiwan and the world.
The prospects for tourism are also exciting, with visitor numbers reaching 1 million last year. While it would be exaggerating to say that people vacation in Penghu mainly so they can look at renewable energy infrastructure, reviewers regularly mention the island's windmills and a green ethos that has begun to touch all aspects of local life.
The majority of visitors are Taiwanese, Japanese and Westerners, said Penghu tour guide Chang Tsai-li, with Chinese tourists apparently more interested in Taiwan's cities and other big-ticket attractions.
Chang also said that her clients are divided between those who seek more traditional tourist activities like fishing, barbequing, sightseeing and photography, and others looking for something more adventurous, like biking, scuba diving, windsurfing, kite-surfing, and scooter tours.
There is plenty for both types.
Penghu's beaches are among the finest in Taiwan, featuring glistening white sand, coral reefs and turquoise-blue water. The scenery is stunning, and fresh seafood plentiful, while ferry services allow bikers to island-hop following routes between historic sites and Qing and Japanese era lighthouses built in past centuries to make navigation safe in the Taiwan Strait.
Penghu's environmental virtues go beyond reducing carbon emissions.
In 1995, the county government designated six beaches on Wangan Island as sanctuaries for green sea turtles to lay their eggs each year, followed in 2002 by the opening of the Green Turtle Tourism and Conservation Center for visitors.
And with 80 percent of their area uninhabited and with effective wildlife laws in place to protect them, Penghu's Islands also serve as ideal nesting grounds for migratory birds. Last year, birdwatchers sighted for the first time on Penghu the rare Chinese crested tern, which until 2000 was thought to be extinct.
Whatever its successes in technology and tourism, perhaps Penghu's greatest export to the world will be an example of how a community properly supported can manage its own resources without betraying what made them communities in the first place.