On 31October last year, the people of Germany got a little gift from their national electricity grid: they were paid to consume energy. And it wasn’t the first time, either.
Strange though it may sound, that’s what happened on that Halloween night. Thanks to a strong North Sea wind, there was more electricity on the grid than people needed: the equivalent of fourteen nuclear reactors. For a few hours, generation costs became negative.
This happened several times during last year, particularly in April and May, when there were further peaks in output. All this was thanks to the government’s farsighted renewable energy policies, which could even become a permanent state of affairs.
A similar thing occurred in Italy, with less fanfare, on 15 May 2017. Thanks to a combination of favourable circumstances – large quantities of sun, wind, and water – 80 percent of the country’s energy came from renewable sources. Italy has been very good at exploiting its hydroelectric potential since the beginning of the last century. It was a key driver of industrialisation, though the country has now run out of sites on which to build additional plants.
Germany is also exploiting a large area of water: the North Sea, whose consistently high winds have made it home to huge windfarms. It is the world’s third largest producer of renewable energy after the United States and China.
Italy could imitate this achievement. It has reached maximum hydroelectric capacity, onshore windfarms would be a blot on its beautiful landscape, and it does not have the shallow waters and constant winds required to develop offshore capacity. But it does have plenty of sunshine. While solar got off to a slow start in Italy compared to the rest of Europe, government incentives increased generation from 0.5 to 5.5 percent of requirements from 2010 to 2012, and installed photovoltaic potential ranks second in the world after Germany.
Italy could do a lot more. It has the resources and technology, but until now has lacked a long-term energy policy like Germany’s, which was initially criticised by some as overambitious, but has paid for itself beyond all expectations.