Here's how they did it, and how we can too
This is what can happen when citizens and government agree that it's worth spending a bit more for clean, carbon-free power:
German solar power plants produced a world record 22 gigawatts of electricity – equal to 20 nuclear power stations at full capacity – through the midday hours of Friday and Saturday, the head of a renewable energy think tank has said ... Norbert Allnoch, director of the Institute of the Renewable Energy Industry in Muenster, said the 22 gigawatts of solar power fed into the national grid on Saturday met nearly 50% of the nation's midday electricity needs.That's right—half of all of Germany was powered by electricity generated by solar plants. That's incredible. It was also world record-breaking. Germany is pretty much singlehandedly proving that solar can be a major, reliable source of power—even in countries that aren't all that sunny.
And it's the result, primarily, of two forces:
1) In the wake of Fukushima, Germany is shuttering all of its nuke plants, but has vowed to replace them with clean sources.
2) Germany instituted a feed-in-tariff (FIT) system—which requires utilities to buy solar power from producers, large and small, at a fixed rate—that has fueled the nation's solar boom. Basically, anyone can buy solar panels, set them up, plug them into the grid, and get paid for it.
Now, FITs do make electricity more expensive, since the cost of subsidizing that higher fixed rate is absorbed by all electricity consumers. But Germany doesn't really mind. And why not? Simple: its citizenry has agreed that producing more non-nuclear clean power is worth shelling out a few extra bucks for each month. Gasp.
Conventional wisdom here in the states is that proposing anything that would lead to higher utility bills would be impossible; the masses would revolt over "energy taxes." Well, that's what our political class would have you believe: in reality, a very recent poll found that a majority of Americans would indeed be willing to pay over $160 extra dollars a year to buy cleaner electricity. Of course, support varies from region to region and tends to be consolidated in Democratic-leaning areas.
But still. The popular support is there. We could indeed follow Germany's lead. And we could even do it without the burden of increased costs—if only we could eliminate fossil fuel subsidies and direct them towards renewables. To further illustrate my point, I will now subject you to an infographic. But don't worry, it's simple, and short (the full thing is here):
Now, that probably won't happen, primarily because oh, 68% of Congress is in thrall to the fossil fuels industry. But if we had our priorities straight, we could stop the federal bankrolling of coal and oil—mature, uber-profitable, climate change-causing and heavily polluting industries—and develop a system that rewards clean, renewable power producers instead.
Two last thoughts: First, programs like Germany's FIT are likely to become much more popular when they're in action, when folks with rooftop solar panels or small community arrays start seeing the dollars come in. Secondly, I can't help but think that the relative income equality in places like Germany helps the programs to be so successful and popular—you're going to be much more likely to accept higher costs if you feel like everyone's more or less in it together. This is the case in places like Denmark, too, where there's more equality and publicly tolerated higher electricity costs, so perhaps it's telling that the FIT is less popular in England, which has a steeper income inequality curve. It'd just be another example of how greater income equality is better for everyone.
The fact remains that Germany has achieved something remarkable here, and its experiment need not be anomalous. We should be striving to replicate its success—Germany has proven that solar power isn't just some hippie daydream, but an engine that can power the world's most industrious and advanced nations.