Taiwanese vanilla farmer fights to go solar

STORY: In Taiwan, where land is at a premium, there's little space for sprawling wind and solar farms.

Instead, farmers are finding room to install rooftop solar panels to help the island meets its renewable energy goals.

The use of so-called "distributed" solar like this is growing in popularity, and it's also lucrative business.

Tseng Tien-fu farms a high-value crop: vanilla.

He exports most of it to Japan, but he's expanding as demand picks up elsewhere.

However his plants take a while to mature, so he's turned his attention to another earning opportunity: solar energy.

Tseng has installed dozens of solar panels on top of his greenhouses.

They are arranged in rows so as to still allow some light to reach his plants.

The government provides generous subsidies for the panels and is also obliged to buy the surplus electricity they produce.

For Tseng, it helps bridge the gap between harvests.

[Tseng Tie-Fu, Vanilla Farmer]

'It takes a long time to grow vanilla before there are any crops, but we can sell (electricity) from solar panels to the government for 20 years as soon as they are installed and have an income from that. In other words, once the solar panels are finished, I immediately have income. So especially for plants like vanilla that take three years before there are any crops, I think (solar panels) are a very good combination.”

Land shortages are one of Taiwan's biggest obstacles to renewable energy development,

which is estimated to require around 10 times more land per unit of power than conventional power sources.

Taiwan failed to meet its interim solar capacity target of 11.25 GW this year

and has little room for maneuver as it tries to raise solar capacity to 20 GW by 2025.

Agricultural land accounts for about a fifth of the densely populated island's total area.

Juang Lao-Dar is the Director of Planning at the Taiwan Executive Yuan Council of Agriculture.

“There are not a lot of big scale (solar energy installations), because Taiwan has no desert and Taiwan’s use of land is very dense. So while we are developing green energies, from the country’s perspective, we are more likely to plan solar energy facilities that don’t interfere with production, it’s the same for the agricultural sector.”

Taiwan's problems are not unique.

Governments across the world are trying to figure out how to minimize disruption, avoid conflict with farmers, and prevent biodiversity losses, as they try to decarbonize.

In the U.S., dozens of wind and solar projects have been blocked amid concerns about the occupation of farmland.

Developers in China – the world's biggest renewable energy market - are now being encouraged to make use of depleted mines, mountain slopes and deserts.