Taiwan war game exposes vulnerability of energy grid to a China attack

Taiwanese security experts and retired military officials close to the opposition Kuomintang have called for drastic reforms to make the country’s energy sector less vulnerable against a Chinese attack.

A war game conducted by the non-partisan Taiwan Center for Security Studies think-tank found that energy reserves, the electricity grid, storage facilities and crisis planning fell far short of securing even basic power supplies in case of a blockade or missile attack by Beijing.  

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has over the past few years stepped up military intimidation, economic coercion and efforts to enforce diplomatic isolation to force the island to acquiesce to unification.

As part of efforts to strengthen the country’s defences, the Democratic Progressive party government has focused on making the economy — including the energy sector, technology supply chains and communications infrastructure — more resilient.

But participants said the war game — Taiwan’s first such public exercise to focus on civilian infrastructure, with 180 participants including foreign academics — highlighted several policy shortcomings.

“We have power supply shortfalls even now, not to mention in wartime,” said Liang Chi-yuan, professor at the Research Center for Taiwan Economic Development at National Central University, who led discussions on energy resilience during the two-day table top exercise this week.

Liang said only by reversing plans to phase out nuclear energy by 2025 could Taiwan retain at least some back-up capacity in case fossil fuel supplies were cut off.

Coal, gas and oil — all imported — still account for 82 per cent of Taiwan’s power generation.

The KMT has long attacked the ruling DPP’s ambition to simultaneously abandon nuclear power, replace coal with more natural gas, and ramp up offshore wind and solar power generation as unfeasible.

Phasing out nuclear energy has been part of the DPP’s core values for decades. But in a sign of flexibility, president-elect Lai Ching-te said during his election campaign that nuclear power could be considered as a back-up option.

The driving force behind the war game was Richard Chen, a former defence vice minister and navy commander who as a KMT candidate was elected to parliament in January. Chen said findings from the exercise would be used in drafting a national security strategy that he planned to propose.

The war game made clear the extreme challenges Taiwan would face in supplying its population and massive semiconductor industry with power in case of external disruption.

Under a scenario that China intercepted at least some fossil fuel shipments, Taiwan would run out of gas in a matter of weeks, participants said. They suggested re-equipping power plants to enable them to run on oil or coal, which Taiwan has bigger stockpiles of, as back-up options.

Bar chart of % of net power generated and purchased in 2023 showing Taiwan’s energy mix

The energy experts pinpointed the country’s ageing, highly-centralised electricity grid as the other main vulnerability. Greater Taipei, with its concentration of population, industry and communication infrastructure, relies on supplies from power plants in the centre and south of the island, but all transmission runs through three main bottlenecks.

Electromagnetic or cyber attacks taking out or damaging any of the three could leave the country’s capital and main industrial hubs dark, Liang said. He added that government plans to make the grid more resilient were overly focused on hardware investment.

The government is promoting installation of decentralised wind and solar energy capacity by industrial users and households — a key step to enable power supplies even when the grid is damaged. But Liang said much more generous incentives and subsidies were needed to accelerate implementation.

The energy team on the war game also suggested a review of wartime operation procedures at state-owned utility Taipower, which have not been updated since 2007. Taipower manages the grid and provides most power generation.

The experts said regular public simulations of wartime power supply and conferences seeking input from industry should be held to help plan the rolling blackouts, power rationing and emergency electricity supplies to hospitals and the military that would be needed if an attack reduced energy supplies.