A “skewed” distribution: synchronizing intermittency

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According to some of our politicians (among them our federal Minister of Energy) we are missing out on cheap electricity from solar and wind. They look forward to abundant electricity from abroad, specifically from Germany, and to be able to import this cheap electricity.

We surely will get dependent on imported electricity soon. Belgium is going to decommission 6 GW of nuclear capacity (currently producing roughly half of our demand) by 2025 and replace it with 2.3 GW of gas fired power plants plus increasing solar and wind capacity. It is expected that Belgium will get structurally dependent on import for about 25 to 30% of its demand (and likely a whole lot more by 2050).

As I wrote several times before, I have my doubts whether that import will be cheap and my suspicion has to do with the time when this cheap electricity is produced. I think that the three dates explored in previous post can shed some light on why the prices of imported electricity from Germany will not be cheap. Let’s just look what prices did during those three days.

The first of those three dates was November 16, which was the day with the lowest production of electricity by solar and wind in Belgium as well as in the Netherlands. Production of electricity by solar and wind was also very low in Germany.

Belgium could use some imported cheap electricity throughout the day, but unfortunately this is what was happening in Germany:

The purple line is the import/export balance. If it goes below 0 GW, this means that Germany is importing more than it is exporting. If it goes above 0 GW, this means that Germany is exporting more than it is importing. It is clear from the graph that Germany was importing throughout most of the day (there was only some very limited export just after midnight of November 16 and just before midnight of November 17).

This has an impact on pricing. Prices were relatively low during the night, but shot up in the early morning to stay pretty high until after the evening peak (high demand during working hours combined with low production).

It is true that prices were relatively low during the short periods of export, but at the time that Belgium badly needed import, Germany was struggling with the exact same problem and needed to import electricity itself. There wasn’t much potential for import from Germany during that day, let alone cheap import. If Belgium had to import electricity from Germany during the day, it would have paid a high price for it.

Let’s go to July 29. This was the day with high intermittent production in Belgium. This is what happened in Germany:

Germany exported electricity during most of the day at low prices, even dipping slightly below zero for a couple hours in the early afternoon. Export skyrocketed in the early morning and stayed high until the early evening, the exact same moment Belgium had its highest production of electricity from solar and wind.

Finally, there is August 2. This was an in-between day in which Belgium had not much wind, but a lot of sunshine. Belgium could use some of that “cheap” electricity before 8 AM and after 9 PM when wind energy did rather poorly, but alas, Germany was then busy importing electricity itself:

Germany exported electricity between 10 AM and 7 PM, but Belgium also had plenty of sun (combined with low demand) during that time.

What does this learn us?

It is true that Germany sometimes has low to sometimes even negative prices. These low prices are probably what makes our politicians wanting to increase our import. Unfortunately, they aren’t looking at the timing when these low prices occur and where our energy infrastructure is heading to. Just like Germany, Belgium is focusing primarily on increasing intermittent power capacity without building capacity to balance that output.

Germany’s balancing strategy is to export its excess electricity to its neighboring countries and this results in low to negative prices. Now Belgium and The Netherlands are also following Germany’s example, it will diminish their ability to import electricity from Germany when solar and wind production is abundant. The higher the share of intermittent production, the more difficult it will become to benefit from this cheap electricity import. When there is a lot of sun an wind, Germany will have an overproduction of cheap electricity, but so does Belgium. When there isn’t much sun and wind, Germany will scramble to produce its own energy, maybe even want to import, but so does Belgium.

Viewed in that light, increasing our dependency on import might not be something to look forward to.

via Trust, yet verify

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December 30, 2021