British Wind Farms Generate More Electricity Than the Grid Can Handle

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Wind farms often are dismissed as a Quixotic idea for generating electricity. Some even argue that every turbine should be equipped with a conventional power plant in case the weather is calm.

Not in Britain. During the first 10 months of 2014, the National Grid shelled out nearly $67.3 million to wind farms to shut down their turbines, mostly in Scotland, where most U.K. wind farms are situated.

Scots’ demand for electricity isn’t as high as the amount of electricity generated by their wind farms. The answer should be to ship the juice south, but the cables to do the job aren’t ready yet. So in order to balance supply with demand, the Grid makes “constraint payments” to the wind farms to stop their turbines. The money comes from surcharges to customers’ energy bills.

The Grid may be stringing cable as fast as it can, but the problem is getting worse, not better. The $67.3 million paid out during the first 10 months of this year is more than 30% higher than the total constraint payments for all of 2013.

Here’s one example of the power of wind: Last month, Scotland had an “outstanding October for wind energy,” generating on October 20 a one-day record of 24% of Britain’s electricity needs, according to Renewable UK, a British wind industry association.

The Scottish affiliate of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) recently reported that during October, Scotland’s wind farms generated 982,842 megawatt hours of electricity, enough to power more than 3 million houses, or 126% of the power needed for all of Scotland’s homes. The report was based on data from WeatherEnergy, which gathers data on renewable sources of power.

Lang Banks, the director of WWF Scotland, issued a statement saying, “While nuclear power plants were being forced to shut because of cracks, Scotland’s wind and sunshine were quietly and cleanly helping to keep the lights on in homes across the country. … [I]t really was a bumper month for renewables in Scotland.”

But it also meant that the Grid was forced to pay several record daily constraint payments in October, including a one-day outlay of $4.8 million to turn off turbines at 33 wind farms on October 26, according to the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF), which has been critical of subsidies to wind farms.

Further, if the wind farms generate more electricity than the Grid can handle, the national utility then must pay generators elsewhere in the U.K. to generate additional power.

The Grid is busy upgrading Scotland’s electrical network in hopes of reducing such costs eventually. But the program is costly, and some wonder whether the effort is worthwhile.

One is REF Director John Constable, who told The Telegraph, “Avoiding constraint payments is not necessarily the cheapest option. It would have been cheaper to avoid building so much wind in remote locations in the first place.” Besides, he said, the subsidies paid to wind farms are “too high.”

Originally written for OilPrice.com, a website that focuses on news and analysis on topics of alternative energy, geopolitics, and oil and gas. OilPrice.com is written for an educated audience that includes investors, fund managers, resource bankers, traders, and energy market professionals around the world.