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Solar electricity world record: Germany cranks half its power with PV

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Some people think that Germany's walk away from nuclear will lead it down the fossil fuel path. But for a cloudless day last week, the country was churning out solar energy like no nation ever has.

Solar power production reached its brightest moment ever, anywhere, one day in Germany last week. Output cranked at 22 gigawatts according to a Muenster renewable energy institute. Above, a sunny day in Munich.

Some people believe that Germany's walk away from nuclear power will lead it down a path to more fossil fuel plants and all the CO2 emissions that come with them.

But for a day or two last week, the country was cranking solar electricity like it or no nation ever has, according to the International Economic Platform for Renewable Energies in Muenster. The group said in a press release last Saturday that photovoltaic operations in Germany were producing at 22 gigawatts for a cloudless stretch beginning at around noon on Friday, May 25.

As the institute pointed out, that was the equivalent of about 20 nuclear power plants.

"There are currently no other countries on earth producing solar plants with a capacity of 20,000 megawatts (20 gigawatts)," director Norbert Allnoch said in the release, translated roughly into English by Google.

Reuters followed that announcement with a story the next day saying the 22 gigawatts furnished nearly 50 percent of Germany's electricity at the time.  A version of the Reuters story in the Chicago Tribune suggested that German solar was running at 22 gigawatts per hour from around noon on Friday through Saturday afternoon.

I've asked the Muenster group to clarify their gigawatts from their gigawatt hours and their gigawatts per hour -- a clarification that energy engineers will appreciate. I haven't heard back yet.

But I take it at face value that German solar panels were rocking at a record rate last week.

Germany has long been the world leader in producing solar electricity, in large measure because over a decade ago it implemented "feed in tariffs" (FiTs) that essentially pay people and businesses for generating solar.

Germany has been cutting those tariffs steadily,  and at an accelerating pace as plunging prices of solar panels makes them less necessary. The FiTs have encouraged solar uptake and have led to lower prices through manufacturing economies of scale. On top of that, Chinese manufacturers have pushed prices down.

German's Parliament recently sped up FiT cuts in part because the subsidy has led to higher electricity prices, a Bloomberg Businessweek story noted two months ago.

Some rankings still put Germany in the top spot, although according to one report Italy overtook them last year.

The importance of solar is now greater than ever in Germany, following the country's decision to abandon nuclear power after Japan's Fukushima nuclear meltdown in March 2011. Germany has already closed down 8 of its 17 nuclear plants and plans to close the remainder by 2022.

Whether renewables like solar and wind can permanently rise to fill the nuclear gap remains to be seen. A geothermal power industry has also taken root in the country. The world is watching this one.

Photo: www.gls-german-courses.de

More German sun on SmartPlanet:

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure