Although more can be done to harness the power from that bright fireball in the sky, several countries have taken the lead in capturing the sun’s energy and are using it as a viable source of electricity. By all accounts, the sun is not going anywhere any time soon. America could learn a thing or two from Germany, China, Italy and Japan when it comes to solar power. Although solar power was once seen as a niche market, these countries are proving that solar power is a legitimate answer to the world’s search for alternatives to fossil fuels.
Germany has long been at the forefront of solar power and produced a total of 38.2 gigawatts (GW) out of 177 GW produced globally in 2014. To put that in perspective, 1 GW is around the output of a large natural gas or nuclear plant. On several occasions, Germany has met over 50% of the nation’s daily energy needs from solar power. Germany’s long-term shift to cleaner energy has made its economy the world’s largest to rely so markedly on renewable energy.
Although Germany is far from a sun-drenched nation, its goal is to rely on solar and other renewable sources of energy for 100% of its electric power by 2050. Clearly the world leader in the advancement of solar power, Germany is rapidly adding to its solar capacity every day to reach this goal.
As the nation with the largest population and carbon footprint, China’s clear commitment to renewable energy is encouraging. As of 2015, China is the largest producer and buyer of solar panels. The vast majority of photovoltaic products, or solar panels, is being installed in remote areas by giant solar farms that sell the energy to utilities. Satellite imagery shows the incredible growth of these enormous solar farms that continue to pop up all over China.
China’s drastic increase in solar power stems from the nation’s desperate need for electricity and its severe air pollution crisis. While Germany and other nations have curbed incentives to install solar panels, China’s government is aggressively encouraging financial institutions to give incentives for solar installations.
As one of the most densely populated countries in the world, Japan does not have the luxury of covering huge swathes of land with solar panels. Despite its lack of abundant open space, Japan is still among the world’s leaders in terms of total solar energy produced, with 23.3 GW of output in 2014.
After the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in 2011, Japan made a serious commitment to solar energy as part of a plan to double its renewable energy by 2030. Out of necessity, Japan found creative places to install solar panels. A boom in the popularity of golf in Japan in the 1980s led to an overabundance of golf courses, many of which were completely abandoned as of 2015. Many of these forgotten courses are now completely covered in photovoltaic products.
The island nation has even gone so far as to create floating “solar islands” with thousands of water-resistant solar panels. These next-generation solar farms have several advantages including their ability to be more efficiently cooled by water.
While not producing nearly the total amount of solar power as the other leading nations, the 18.5 GW Italy created in 2014 represented almost 10% of the nation’s total energy needs, more than any other country. Tax breaks given to solar farms have expired, causing many to be sold or even foreclosed upon. Italy’s impressive output of solar energy is expected to decline as a result.
5. The US
The United States has continued to improve its standing as a leader in solar power by expanding its output by 30% in 2014 with an $18 billion investment. Much of the increase is attributable to substantial government incentives given to the residential sector, which is the fastest-growing market segment. The utility sector has also improved with 3.9 GW of utility-scale projects installed in 2014. As the cost of solar power becomes more cost-competitive with nonrenewable resources, U.S. output is expected to rise considerably higher than the 18.3 GW reported in 2014.