Imagine opening up your electric bill and seeing that you didn't owe your local utility company for some of the power you'd consumed. Instead, they owed you.
While some in the United States struggle to settle their electric bill each month, there are Germans experiencing the opposite: they are being compensated for plugging into the grid and using electricity. And while they still have to pony up cash at the end of a billing period, the resulting bill is smaller than it would have otherwise been.
It's not the norm, but it has happened more than 100 times in the last year across the country. It appears the $200 billion investment Germany made to promote the use of clean sources of electricity is finally paying off.
The circumstances for such an event require a little bit of serendipity, according to The New York Times. When strong wind, a lot of solar power from warm weather and low demand intersect, it can be enough to send electric prices into the negative. It's not your average German who is reaping direct benefits, but factories and large-scale consumers who will be paid as much as $60 per megawatt to use electricity for an hour.
And while your average consumer in Germany might not get paid to hop on the grid, they are benefitting from costs for electricity across the country that are lower than they otherwise would be. Meanwhile, the power suppliers in Germany are still learning to function in this new world.
For one, they haven't yet figured out how to store excess energy from clean sources. Typically, turbines across the country produce 12 percent of Germany's electrical power. On very windy days, though, that number can be several times larger. When those day comes, some power sources, including nuclear power, can't slow down fast enough to avoid creating excess power. Since battery technology isn't advanced enough to store the electricity created by wind and solar for extended periods of time, there will be unusual excess and then things will simply go back to normal.
"We now have technology that cannot produce according to the demand, but is producing according to the weather," Tobias Kurth, the managing director of the Berlin-based consulting firm Energy Brainpool, told The New York Times.
He called this phenomenon "one of the key challenges in the whole transition of the energy market to renewable power."
Germany isn't alone, either. While it happens most frequently there, Belgium, Britain, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland have all seen negative power prices in the last year. Regulatory arms of the government in Germany are hoping they can get the benefits more directly to the consumer too, and are considering creating incentives to use things like washing machines or dishwashers during the times when there is excess electrical power.
With any luck, this kind of energy situation will spread to more countries across the globe. The International Energy Agency says 40 percent of all global electricity will be powered by renewable energy in 2040, meaning other countries who invest in renewable could soon be experiencing the negative prices while they go through a similar transition Germany is experiencing.
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