Chintay Shih, chair of Taiwan's Institute for Information Industry, has been a key player in creating Taiwan's semiconductor industry, which now boasts more than $50 billion in annual revenue. As the former president of the Industrial Technology Research Institute, a research organization with more than 1,100 PhDs who generate patents, startup companies, and spinoffs, he is interested in how Taiwan can use its technical expertise to improve its own and world energy efficiency. He has been an active participant in a research and information-sharing program on smart green cities launched in 2008 by the Stanford Program on Regions of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SPRIE) at Stanford GSB. He sat down for an interview in June during a break in a SPRIE conference on technology and policy for smart, green cities. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.
What do you see as the technologies that might improve Taiwan's energy situation in the next 10 to 20 years?
Taiwan is a very small island, and we import all the energy. We do not have resources to explore, so it's more about how to manage effectively the use of energy, and we are also putting R&D into alternative energy. We already have strong industries in photovoltaic solar cells, and energy savings from LED lighting. We also spend some effort in wind power. Most likely in the future, these few areas will be more promising for Taiwan.
At this conference on smart, green cities, some speakers said that islands with short travel distances would be good places to use electric cars and trucks whose batteries can be swapped at recharging stations. Do you think that technology will be used in Taiwan?
Even though Taiwan is a big island, there are also small islands associated, and we can do something on a pilot scale there and also a possible pilot between short-distance cities.
Are you developing smart, green cities?
Yes. For example, in Taipei City in 2004 when President Ma Ying-jeou was the mayor, he initiated a wireless city program, trying to use the internet to save people from travel and to reduce congestion in the city. That's one sector of the smart city. It has evolved because the technology has evolved. More cities in Taiwan have tried using more mobile services to enhance the capability of government to provide better services for business people, for the school kids, and shoppers, or tourism. There are quite a few things that now are happening in a few of Taiwan's cities.
Can you separate what is a gain for the economy versus energy efficiency improvements?
It's difficult to evaluate what is directly an impact on the economy and jobs. Taiwan has a strong information technology industry. We make a lot of smart phones, computers, and intelligent devices that we export to the U.S. and other countries. So now, the government is beginning to think we should also explore the use of those devices here. Instead of just making it, we are putting some effort into how to use the technology to associate with our economy, with our communities, with our energy management. It's changed from just purely economic growth from exports. Now people are talking about citizen benefits.
How difficult is financing for these kinds of efforts?
It's not easy. Even though you have money available, investors want the best return. If the cost is too high, then the government has to have special incentives in order to get the money invested into that area. You need to have some special incentive or technology that drives the costs down.