Greener Future Slices Through the Smog in Taiwan

A spinning turbine blade was the first thing I saw as my plane made its final approach to Taoyuan International airport in Taipei, Taiwan earlier this month. Clean energy might not be the first thing most people think of when they imagine Taipei, especially given its history as a dirty, polluted city, but the island nation has been stepping up its efforts to produce clean energy in recent years. Its government is encouraging offshore wind generation for the country, as well.

Later, as I made my way to my hotel, the congested city streets proved a startling contrast to those beacons of clean energy. If you’ve been to Taipei, you know the familiar scene at each major intersection: Swarms of scooters lining up, waiting for the light to turn as the drivers—many of them wearing face masks to combat the poor air quality—pack in like sardines amongst the cars and small trucks, clogging the streets all day and night.

If all those scooter riders were in cars, the congestion in Taipei would be completely untenable, rather than just nightmarish. But the scooters are producing such foul emissions, it’s hard to consider them an environmental benefit.

The best option is obviously for everyone to ditch all the wheels and head for the city’s transit system—MRT. It’s a great idea, and an excellent transit system. But each time I took the MRT it was either pretty crowded or totally packed. I marveled at the fact that the trains still run on time and move people around efficiently, but could it handle all of the city’s transportation needs? I can’t imagine.

Migrating away from those two-stroke scooters seems like the obvious first choice in making Taipei cleaner. An electric scooter? Sounds great, but what about charging? Taipei is incredibly dense and building a charging and payment structure for its apartment-dwelling citizens would be Herculean. A better, short-term option would be upgrading scooters with add-ons, like direct injection retrofit kits (which Envirofit offers).

More needs to be done, as well, but thankfully Taiwan’s got some great minds on the job. A Taiwanese company called Advanced Power and Energy Sources Transportation has developed a test vehicle, known as the Salamander, which runs on zinc fuel cells.

And as I learned during a visit to Taiwan’s R&D hub, Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), there’s lots of research underway to develop fuel cells, renewable energy and energy efficiency. During a walk-through of the facilities, I learned about more than a few smart innovations, such as a window coating that spreads sunlight throughout a room, boosting natural light indoors and reducing the need for lighting. But my favorite, since I’m a sucker for energy harvesting, is a sprinkler system for buildings, wherein the force of the water moving through the sprinkler nozzles powers a small LED light, eliminating the need for battery-powered emergency lighting. It’s a small thing, but not when you think of all the sprinkler systems in all the buildings in all the world.

Taiwan is also playing another, often overlooked role in bringing renewable energy and energy-efficient products to market. The Electronic Test Center (ETC)  of Taiwan has recently begun testing the electrical systems used in electric vehicles, making sure the electrical systems work to code and that the various systems in these cars do not interfere with each other. ETC also performs certification testing to determine whether electronic devices meet the Energy Star and EPEAT standards for efficiency and safe materials.

So while one wouldn’t guess it, idling among a sea of two-stroke engines at a red light in Taipei, it seems Taiwan is playing an important role in the new energy economy.

Have you seen encouraging signs of sustainability during your recent travels? Let us know  about it.

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to www.mcoconnor.com.