Clear skies and social distancing help Europe shatter solar energy records

Low pollution and cool, sunny weather is increasing PV output.

picture alliance via Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic is helping multiple countries in Europe set new records for solar energy generation.

Production in the UK peaked at 9.68 gigawatts on Monday, according to a tracker developed by The University of Sheffield in collaboration with the National Grid. (The figure could change slightly, however the tracker believes with “90 percent certainty” that it will fall between 9.65 and 9.71 gigawatts.) According to the Solar Trade Association (STA), the peak was enough to satisfy a third of the UK’s electricity consumption at the time. The previous record of 9.55 gigawatts was recorded last May.

“This is an astonishing feat and indicates only the beginning of what the industry is capable of,” said Dr Nina Skorupska, CEO of REA, a UK trade association for renewable energy and clean technology.

As Bloomberg reports, Germany set a 24-hour record of 32.23 gigawatts on the same day. Spain, meanwhile, peaked with 6.34 gigawatts on March 29th, according to national grid operator Red Eléctrica de España. That was 7.4 percent higher than the previous record set in February.

For one, the skies are generally clear at the moment. “There is hardly a cloud over Germany,” Andreas Friedrich, a spokeperson for the DWD weather service told Bloomberg earlier this week. “And a high-pressure system over Scandinavia will keep these conditions in place until at least Friday.”

The reduction in air pollution has likely helped, too. The coronavirus outbreak has forced many European citizens to work from home and avoid non-essential travel. These unprecedented measures have dramatically reduced traffic and, by extension, the amount of greenhouse gases being produced every day.

Springtime also offers near-perfect temperatures for photovoltaic power. Contrary to popular belief, solar panels perform better in cooler conditions. That’s because they derive power from shifting electrons between ‘rest’ and ‘excited’ states. Hotter weather raises the ‘rest’ temperature of these subatomic particles, which reduces the system’s voltage and resulting efficiency.

“Ideal weather conditions and lower levels of pollution than normal mean solar is providing record levels of cheap, clean power to the grid,” Chris Hewett, CEO of the STA said. “At a time when most of us are working remotely, we can say that solar is truly keeping the Wi-Fi on.”

The slow rise in solar installations — both in residential and commercial spaces — has undoubtedly helped, too. Capacity doubled across the continent last year, according to a report by SolarPower Europe. Spain was the market leader with 4.7 gigawatts of deployment, followed by Germany with 4 gigawatts and the Netherlands with 2.5 gigawatts.

Interest in the UK has waned, though. The government scrapped a feed-in tariff scheme last year that encouraged homeowners to buy solar panels and sell some of the energy they produced to the national grid. That decision has led to a 43 percent drop in small-scale installations, according to statistics released by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Nevertheless, a small number of homeowners are choosing solar panels as a way to protect the environment and become energy independent. As the national install base increases, it becomes easier to break historical records for solar energy generation.

“Every year there’s more installed solar, so the record gets broken nearly every spring,” Jenny Chase, a solar analyst for research organization BloombergNEF said.

Europe is a long way from abandoning fossil fuels entirely. And at some point, the coronavirus pandemic will pass, allowing more people to leave their homes and travel in gas-guzzling cars again. The records set in the last couple of months show what’s possible, though, with a concerted effort from citizens and policymakers.

Let’s hope they’re eclipsed again and again.