FINLAND recently found itself in the apparently enviable position of producing so much clean energy that prices dipped below zero.

It might sound like a nice problem to have but the situation illustrates some of the problems which could face Scotland as the country tries to wean itself off fossil fuels.

Clean energy in Finland was so abundant last Thursday that the price of energy went into negative figures because of overactive hydroelectric plants and a new nuclear reactor.

For cash-strapped Scots feeling the squeeze of sky-high energy bills, the situation sounds enviable – but according to Dr Lars Schewe of Edinburgh University, it indicated uncontrolled prices are uncontrolled and highlights why scientists are desperately trying to find ways of capturing renewable energy.

On the first point, if prices can go down so dramatically, they can also go up in much the same way, as the UK found out when an international boycott of Russian energy caused prices to go through the roof.

The overproduction issue 

If prices are below zero, that means the energy producer – normally either the state or a private company – could be forced to find someone willing to pay to take the energy off them, if they cannot find another part of the country in need or a separate nation willing to buy.

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The problem is one of supply regulation. While gas power stations can be turned on and off relatively quickly and easily, there is no way to regulate the amount of wind or sunshine produced in one day.

What this means is that at times, renewables will produce very little energy and at others too much. Overproduction can become a burden to energy producers.

“For me the negative prices mean we don’t have full control of the network,” said Dr Schewe, a mathematician who researches energy markets.

“The more we go to renewables, the more volatile it will be. Sometimes we will be importing a lot, sometimes we will be exporting a lot and in Scotland, there are lots of days where we have more energy than we actually need and we have to push it off.”

Scotland’s renewable capacity is enormous – but the amount of energy produced can vary wildly from day to day and Dr Schewe explained the current grid system is reasonably well equipped to deal with this sort of fluctuation because of the use of fossil fuels.

Nuclear power 

Coal and gas power plants can be turned on and off much more easily than nuclear plants and are more predictable than the varying weather conditions which dictate renewable energy production, Dr Schewe said.

Nuclear, which was a key part of Finland’s venture into negative energy prices, remains effectively banned in Scotland – but the UK uses it and both the main Westminster parties want the country to use more atomic energy.

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The two main schools of thought around how to make the energy market cleaner while dealing with the issue of overproduction, said Dr Schewe, are to either develop ways of storing electricity like hydrogen or aggressively pursue nuclear.

He said: “It is a very interesting ongoing discussion where people say, in a modern grid, you don’t need nuclear because it is not agile enough, you can’t switch it on and off. We need solutions like storage, we need solutions that are carbon-neutral but are quick to react.

“And other people say, no, no, no. If we know that we need a certain amount of energy, let’s just use nuclear to produce it and we don’t need to worry about everything else.

“That is a big, big discussion and you will find lots of competing arguments in one or the other area.”

Global connections

The main hope is for better integration on a global level, said Dr Schewe, which would minimise the problems associated with the overproduction of energy.

“The hope is that with more interconnection with other countries, is that we might match [with other countries],” he said. “If we have too much and they have too little, then everything is fine.

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“That’s the hope. But it could also be that we need to sell it to whoever is taking it.”

Dr Schewe added: “The intuition is that more interconnection helps because you have the chance that somebody else might need it and might pay you something for it, so more than nothing and you don’t need to pay them. But it’s not a guarantee.”