On some nights in northern Germany, utilities pay customers to keep their lights on. In a country with deep green roots, it's an odd fix for an odd problem: Local distributors have no place to store wind energy and no way to dispatch it to areas that need it.
That's led to so-called negative pricing, where grid operators pay utilities to take the unneeded power. Then utilities like RWE and EnBW of Germany give rebates to customers who use power during periods of excess. Sometimes wind farm operators are even asked to take their turbines offline to trim supply, lowering green operators' profitability.
"We're seeing that wind energy lowers prices, which is great for the consumers," said Christian Kjaer, head of the European WindEnergy Assn., which represents RWE, Spain's Iberdrola, and Denmark's Dong Energy. "[But] we as producers have to acknowledge that this means operating the existing plant fewer hours a year, and this has an effect on investors" and profit.
Since 2002, Germany has doubled its capacity to generate wind power and has 21,000 turbines producing 7.5% of the nation's electricity. That compares with only about 1% in the U.S. The use of wind has lowered wholesale electricity prices in Germany by as much as 5 billion euros some years, says a study by Poeyry, a Helsinki-based consultant. Spanish prices fell at an annualized rate of 26% in the first quarter due to surging wind and hydroelectric production.
Since October 2008, the abundance of wind power has led to periods where German customers were paid rates that sometimes reached 500.02 euros ($665) a megawatt-hour, or about as much power as used by a small factory or 1,000 homes in 60 minutes.
One solution: Tying power markets together, allowing temporary surpluses in one area to flow toward electricity-poor zones. That's now done between the Netherlands, France, and Belgium; Germany plans to join them on Sept. 7.
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