Shining Light On The 5 Most Solar-Powered Countries

There's a new elite club in the world, and it's not the Toronto Temperance Society or London's Sublime Society of Beefsteak: This one boasts an open membership for all countries willing to meet the annual fees and contribute the manpower and labour hours. But the perks are out of this world. Welcome to the 10 Gigawatt Club; there are now five countries that have met or surpassed this amount of installed solar power infrastructure. These 5 countries are now set to reap the many benefits of a solar-powered infrastructure, among them; cheaper running costs, sustainable and reliable power, and - crucially - the greater independence gained from a reduced reliance on fossil fuels.

It can be difficult to contextualise 10 Gigawatts (GW) without a reference, but generally speaking a nuclear reactor produces an average of 1.3 GW of electricity every year. For an even more backyard comparison, one GW equals one million Kilowatts. In British Columbia, about 10 Kilowatts of solar power is enough to offset the 11,000 kilowatt-hours (kWhs) amassed by an average three bedroom home over the course of a year. Translated simply: this means that a country with 10 GW of solar energy can power roughly 100,000 average homes for one year.

And the future is only getting brighter. While some countries are lagging behind in terms of government support and funding for solar projects, these elite five are shining examples of the power of alternative thinking and the future of alternative energy sources. And it seems the bottom three here are only getting warmed up - they accounted for roughly 60% of all large-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) projects last year.

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5 Japan: 10 GW

Japan started off strong 10 years ago when they were the first country to reach the 1 GW milestone. Even as far back as 1994 there were incentives of up to half-off the cost for homeowners installing solar PV systems, and until 2005 Japan was the world leader for installed solar PV. This early dominance played a large part in establishing some of Japan's manufacturers - like Sharp and Sanyo - as leaders in the domestic PV market. However, solar energy took a dive in the 2000s when Japan solidified an energy plan for the next decade that focused on significant nuclear plant expansion.

In 2012, solar stepped to the forefront again when the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, off the Pacific Coast of Tohoku, caused level 7 meltdowns at three nuclear reactors. It was this tragic disaster that led the Japanese government to reconsider their nuclear energy strategy and give a boost to solar subsidies instead. These included feed-in tariffs (FITS), which allow users of solar energy to sell excess power back into the grid on a long-term contract basis, at a higher cost than retail price. However, many of the projects are slow to take off and have left developers struggling to deliver on their promises for a quick fix.

4 United States: 10 GW

This might be a surprising one, given America's historical hesitancy in committing to climate change legislation - in 2005, the Bush administration famously refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol which would have seen America commit to cutting greenhouse gases. While the country still has a significant carbon footprint, the US hit the 10 GW solar power mark in 2013 - 83% of that was completed within the past three years.

This is no doubt in part to some large scale solar photovoltaic (PV) installations on retail giants like Walmart and IKEA. The former has reduced store-wide energy expenses by more than a million dollars, while the latter has currently installed solar power in a huge 90% of US stores. Another impressive contribution has been the world's largest solar power complex to date, nestled in the Mojave Desert close to the California-Nevada border. Ivanpah is a 377 Megawatt (MW) project comprised of three plants that together will be capable of generating enough electricity to serve more than 140,000 homes in California during the peak hours of the day. The project is currently in final testing stages.

A multitude of solar-friendly incentive programs - from federal tax incentives and loan programs to state-renewable energy mandates, net metering (selling excess energy back into the grid at retail cost), various rebates, and other policies - have helped homeowners, businesses and farmers make the most of their blue sky days. It has been noted, however, that one reason the country may lag behind other world solar leaders is a lack of FITs, which has proved to be a powerful motivator for solar projects in other countries and enabled 75% of global PV installations.

In 2014 the US is forging ahead, on target to reach 17 GW by the end of the year. While President Barack Obama may have tried to position the country as world leader in the solar industry a little bit preemptively during his January 2014 State of the Union speech, the country are certainly in the race towards some major solar milestones.

3 China: 12 GW

China was also was included in the 10 GW club in 2013 after a very busy ten months, having installed more solar power just last year than the U.S. has throughout its entire history; China totaled an incredible 3.6 GW in just a few months. The country is also currently the world's largest producer of solar panels.

The extreme increase in the country's installed solar capacity is a result of the very low cost of installations, and the availability of incentives and FITs. Analysts are also indicating a correlation between an oversupply of PV providers flooding the market and China's rise in uptake - given the vast number of domestic PV vendors. The disadvantage of this is simply that while the solar power in China may be booming, solar companies working in the country could find profitability a challenge in a hypercompetitive market.

Needless to say, residential and large scale solar panel installations continue to mount, with the 100.3MW Jiayuguan project in Gansu arguably the biggest installation in the country to date, covering 642.5 acres.

2 Italy: 16.7 GW

Italy had already reached 9 GW by 2010, having sat at 1 GW for the previous four years. The rapid growth can be attributed to the fact the country has no fossil fuel resources, and instead was relying on imported natural gas. Add to that a country heavily in favour of avoiding nuclear power, and the move to renewable energy seems perfectly logical. This decision has proved highly successful, and from January to July 2013, the country generated over 7% of their electrical consumption through solar power. The 13 MW Borgo San Lazzaro project in Salerno Province was also completed in 2013, sitting on 469.5 acres of Defence Ministry land next to the 8MW Spineto project. It's anticipated that together the two solar projects will be able to generate a huge 30 million kWh a year.

Solar energy was adapted early by municipalities, with numerous regions implementing rules and regulations in keeping with the government's renewable energy objectives. Italy has also developed other renewable energy projects utilizing hydro, wind and geothermal energy, which in total provides 57.2% of the country's electricity generation - an exceptionally high number even compared to the current world leader in solar power.On the heels of rapid growth and success in the area, Italy is currently winding down its renewable energy incentives - specifically solar power - in 2014, with the goal of balancing growth for long-term sustainability.

1 Germany: 34.8 GW

Germany has long been the world leader in solar installations, and has been a market leader with their high-end solar technology and solar products. The country has showcased incredibly versatile and creative applications of solar power. On one afternoon in July, 2012, over half of the country was running on solar power alone: They set another astounding record in July, 2013 when 5.1 terawatt-hours of electricity were generated from solar energy. These records are due to the sheer volume of installed solar panels  in the country and a phasing out of nuclear power plants. The solar energy industry in Germany is boosted, too, by large subsidies and TIFs. In 2009, a regulation was passed requiring all new builds install renewable energy heating systems under the Renewable Energies Heating Law.

The country has seen progressive installation projects ranging from solar panel installations on the walls of the Autobahn highway, to the completion of the one of the world's most technically advanced solar PV plants called the Templin Project. It's a 128 MW project on an unused Russian airfield close to Templin, Brandenburg.

In 2013 over 15% of the country's power was generated by wind and solar. However, installed solar panels in Germany did decrease significantly in 2013, from over 7 GW in 2012 to just under 4 GW last year, and the government has announced it will phase out subsidies by 2018. Issues like a downturn of jobs in the market and a government proposal to tax self-consumption of solar power may impact the country's solar powered trajectory over the long-term. While that remains to be seen, challenges are par for the course given the unprecedented nature of Germany's commitment in what is still a relatively new technology.

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