On May 25, 2012, the sun was shining in Germany when a record-breaking 22.4 gigawatt hours of solar power was produced. At peak production nearly half of domestic energy demand was supplied by photovoltaic panels. As Norbert Allnoch, director of the Institute of the Renewable Energy Industry (IWR) in Muenster, told Reuters: "Never before anywhere has a country produced as much photovoltaic electricity. Germany came close to the 20 gigawatt (GW) mark a few times in recent weeks. But this was the first time we made it over."
This achievement cements Germany's position as a leader in renewable energy and could not come at a better time. Reuters reports that Germany shut down eight of its nuclear plants in the aftermath of the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi and plans to close the remaining nine plants by 2022. In addition, it aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2022. To reach these targets renewable energy sources must pick up the slack created by closing nuclear plants. Therefore, Germany's recent solar power achievement is very good news. Allnoch said that the event "shows Germany can do with fewer coal-burning power plants, gas-burning plants and nuclear plants".
According to Reuters "Germany has nearly as much installed solar power generation capacity as the rest of the world combined". This is largely due to the country's feed-in tariffs (FIT), a policy mechanism that stimulates investment in renewable technologies by setting a fixed price on the power these produce. FITs are currently a source of debate in Germany as the upper parliament is fighting Chancellor Merkel to prevent cuts. This situation is not unique to Germany. Other countries such as the UK are also slashing their FIT, a move that threatens their domestic solar industries. Until solar panel prices reach grid parity, solar will be heavily reliant on economic incentives such as FIT.
Related article: For more information on solar policy in Germany see the SolarTown news story Solar Energy in Germany: Sinkhole or Vision of the Future.
It is important to note that Germany not only produces far more solar power than other European nations, but also that it does so in a very different way. German energy is mainly owned by individuals and not utilities companies. Thomas Koehler of treehugger.com describes this as a "democratic shift in control of resources and a break from the way electricity and energy has been produced over the past century". He then notes that photovoltaic technology has made Germans more energy independent by decentralizing power production. Overall, 51% of renewable energy in Germany is owned by individuals or farms, amounting to $100 billion of private investment, according to the Reuters article.
Despite the record output many remain skeptical of solar's future in Europe. German consumers pay about 4 billion euros ($5 billion) per year on top of their electricity bills for solar power, according to a 2012 report by the Environment Ministry (Reuters). The Washington Post says that "Utilities have complained that their conventional plants' profitability is too low because they are forced to operate below capacity, which might eventually force them to shut down the plants for good". They add that these conventional systems are necessary to prevent blackouts.
Unfortunately, fluctuating outputs and high taxes are problems that are unlikely to go way immediately as solar energy depends on both subsidies and sunlight. While these issues are present, surpassing 20GW of solar power production is a promising and important milestone. The future looks bright for solar power in Germany.