Image from CleanTechnica.com

By Nick

As Claire reported earlier in the week Germany made history over last weekend by producing 50% of the country’s energy needs using solar power. It was a news story that sent many rushing to their keyboards to proclaim the coming of age of solar power as our fuel of the future, whilst others leapt to destroy such good news, pointing out the flaws and downsides in solar energy. It seems like it did little bar entrench the views on the extreme sides of the debate.

But what are the facts? How did Germany do it? What does it mean for the future?

The past week has been rather sunny in Europe, and on Friday, Germany set a new world record in solar energy production of 22.15GW. (This is equivalent to about 20 nuclear power stations). This solar power supplied about 30% of the countries total electricity and accounted for about 14% of the total daily electricity needs of the country. On Saturday, the peak production also topped 20GW, while the total was not quite as high as Friday, the lower electricity demand on the weekends meant that 50% of the electricity demands were met, the headline figure.

A few clarifications, yes there are always limitations. This is about electrical needs, not those associated with heating through gas, or running cars or anything like that. So it wouldn’t be a 50% drop in emissions. The total contribution of solar power accounts for about 4% of total electricity needs in Germany per year (expected to rise to about 7% this year) – they’re not near 50% all the time yet, whilst renewables account for about 20% annually. But lets not detract too much, whilst it isn’t the savior of mankind, this is an important milestone along the road to renewable energy.

The path that Germany has taken has not been easy, in some ways, their hand has been forced by the closure of their nuclear plants (which do count as green electricity, if not renewable) after popular protest following Fukishima. Germany has been forced to invest very rapidly in renewable energy (though they have been investing for a long time before Fukishima too). Germany also has a very high subsidy for solar energy, feed-in tariffs are high (what you get paid if you generate electricity on the roof of your house). Overall Germany now has more solar generating capacity than the rest of the world put together, but as a result they have some of the most expensive energy bills and highest government subsidies.

This power generation is not so unusual in Germany this year, since the massive upgrades to solar capacity installed recently. While, yes, it was a sunny few days that helped push capacity over the magic 20GW line, it was, on average, been up above 16GW for the month of May, not too shabby. And Germany hasn’t been sunny for an entire month.

What does this mean for the future? Well the Germans aim to have 25% solar energy in the future, which would mean, on a sunny day, producing close to 400% of the electricity needs of the nation. This would result in the closure of most power plants in Northern Europe to protect themselves from the power surges. What this highlights in the move to renewables is for a major increase in storage capacity (through batteries, water storage etc) and a strong network of cables across all of Europe to help transport energy.

So while renewable energy might not be consistent in one place, it can be consistent across Europe as a whole, and investment in infrastructure is just one area where it is needed in order to reach a cleaner electricity future.

This moment is important, it is a milestone, solar energy might not yet be able to save the world, but it is now out of the fringes and firmly in the mainstream.

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See this excellent article for more information at CleanTechnica.

Other reading and sources: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/may/28/solar-power-world-record-germany,

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_in_Germany

http://knowledgetoday.wharton.upenn.edu/2012/05/sunspots-germany-proves-solar-energy-is-no-mirage/