Scope#42 | Chenya Energy

Lines of Offshore Panels as Far as the Eye Can See: One of the World’s Largest Floating Solar Power Plants

Along the scenic western coastline of Taiwan lies Changbin Industrial Park, located in the old port city of Lukang. Here, you will find not only traditional hallmarks of industry, such as heavy chemical and cement factories, but also several modern facilities supporting the heart of Taiwan’s economy today. These facilities include three major types of large-scale power generation plants: thermal, wind, and photovoltaic (solar). Of these, one solar power plant is particularly spectacular—you’ll find it floating above the tidal flats, with lines of offshore panels as far as the eye can see. Built and operated by Marubeni Group company Chenya Energy, this floating solar power plant is among the largest of its kind in the world, generating highly important renewable energy for Taiwanese communities.

A typical solar power plant setup seen in many areas around the world has panels mounted and secured on robust steel racks, which are installed on flat land or gentle slopes. The floating panels at the Changbin solar power plant, however, have a completely different structure: they are placed on special buoys, which enable them to float on the surface of the water as well as to rise and fall two to three meters with the daily tides. They are also robust enough to hold up under the strong northeast monsoon winds that move through the Taiwan Strait from September to February.

The tidal flats over which these panels float are coastal wetlands—an ecosystem rich in marine life. Though the Changbin power plant panels are relative newcomers to these tidal flats, they are well-integrated into their environment, operating without disturbing the ecosystem. At low tide, the panels lay on the bottom of the tidal flat, continuing to generate electricity as small blue crabs scurry about in the muddy sea. Mussels and shellfish peek out lazily from among the panels, and wild birds like white herons fly in to search for their next meal. This tranquil scene demonstrates how floating solar power plants can coexist harmoniously with their natural surroundings.

The smooth integration of the solar panels into the tidal flat ecosystem, however, “did not come about easily—many people are unaware of the numerous challenges involved,” says project manager Alan Chen. The surfaces of the panels are vulnerable to reduced efficiency and damage from salt, sand, bird droppings, and other seawater contaminants, so they must be manually cleaned on a regular basis. Ocean currents drive driftwood and various other debris into the protective netting surrounding the plant, and maintenance staff go on daily patrols of the area, riding on jet skis as they search for and remove this debris. At the end of the day, maintaining and managing a floating solar power plant is extremely demanding.

Tidal Flats: Expanding Solar Power Possibilities

Why, then, did Chenya Energy take on these challenges?
The answer lies in the desire to contribute solutions amidst Taiwan’s current economic and environmental circumstances. Taiwan’s economy continuously faces shortages of certain key resources, namely electricity, fresh water, labor, highly skilled human capital, industrial land, and waste disposal sites. Of these, a stable, nonstop supply of electricity is particularly crucial to the world-class semiconductor and electronic component production bases that are pillars of Taiwan’s economy. At the same time, Taiwan is working with the rest of the world to combat global warming. Its major mission in this respect is to reduce its dependence on coal-fired power, which accounted for 46% of its total electricity generation in 2016, and expand production of renewable energy, which then accounted for only 6% of the total. The Taiwanese authorities have set and are currently pursuing an ambitious goal of decreasing the share of coal-fired power generation to 30%, and increasing renewable energy to 20%, of total power generation by 2025.*

*In January 2022, the 2025 target share of renewable energy was lowered to 15.2%.

One of the barriers that stands in the way of renewable energy development is the lack of available land, a key resource that is always at a premium in Taiwan. Generating approximately 1,000 MW of electricity (the amount of energy produced by a single nuclear power plant) using solar power would require approximately 500 hectares of land alone for the installation of solar panels with average power generation efficiency, plus an additional 500 hectares for the rest of the plant, including ancillary facilities and work space—meaning each MW of electricity requires about 1 hectare of land to produce. The Changbin solar power plant operated by Chenya Energy uses around 800,000 panels over 248 hectares for a total capacity of approximately 250 MW; in other words, it is a standard solar power plant in terms of area efficiency. The plant’s true significance, however, lies in that it has achieved this level of power generation using tidal flats rather than flat land.

Taiwan has an area of 36,193 square kilometers, similar to that of Belgium or the U.S. state of Maryland, but two-thirds of this area is mountainous and forested, with limited flat land. Given Taiwan’s robust population of 23.5 million—around twice that of Belgium and almost quadruple that of Maryland—only a limited amount of suitable land remains available for solar power generation. Therefore, tidal flats, lakes, and dams throughout Taiwan are important potential development sites for solar power generation, and Chenya Energy has already pioneered floating solar power plants in several such locations.

Leaving a Beautiful Natural Environment for Future Generations: Contributing to Mitigating Global Warming by Promoting Solar Power

Reflecting on how far the Changbin solar power plant project has come since it began in 2019, Chenya Energy procurement manager Toto Lee recalls, “Getting the project going felt like a constant struggle. We had to contend with soaring material and labor costs, as well as logistical disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.” What helped her to overcome these difficulties, she says, was “my heartfelt aspiration, as a mother of four children, to leave a beautiful natural environment for future generations.”

Chenya Energy’s endeavors make it a valuable member of the Marubeni Group, which places great importance on renewable energy. Marubeni formulated its long-term vision for climate change in March 2021 and positioned green strategy as one of its basic policies to enhance corporate value in its Mid-term Management Strategy GC2024, and is actively involved in the development of renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, and geothermal. The “renewables” aspect of working at Chenya Energy is, according to IR manager and assistant of chairman Taisuke Yanagisawa, what makes his job especially interesting: “The renewable energy business is now experiencing a surge of interest given the times we live in, and projects are gaining an even greater sense of speed.” Having also worked on power supply development at Chenya Energy for nearly four years, he adds, “In my work, I place particular importance on communicating with local communities and information disclosure.” As renewable energy businesses take root in and gain the trust of Taiwanese communities, their scale and positive impact will surely continue to grow.

Looking forward, President Austin Yu passionately describes his vision for Chenya Energy’s future: “We will leverage the experience we have gained from the Changbin solar power plant at other sites, and we will endeavor to contribute to mitigating global warming by promoting solar power.”

All information contained in this article is based on interviews conducted from October 2023.