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Will Europe’s Solar-Powered Grid Survive A Total Solar Eclipse?

A total solar eclipse over Europe is set for Friday and has officials worried about the integrity of the continent’s electrical grid, which is increasingly being powered by solar panels that rely on sunshine to produce energy.

Germany, Europe’s leading green energy producer, is located for better or worse right where the eclipse is set to be most pronounced. Solar panels produce 7 percent of the country’s electricity when it’s bright out, but questions loom about the grid’s performance when the sun blacks out.

For the 75 minute duration of the eclipse Friday morning, Germans will likely see massive power losses due to solar panels not getting enough sun. Solar power usually sees big decreases at the end of the day when the sun goes down, according to the energy company Opower, but utilities expect that and can compensate.

Opower expects the solar eclipse to cause power levels to drop 2.7 times faster than normal. Will German energy companies be able to ramp up production from coal and gas power plants in time to balance out the grid? Or will there be a period of rolling blackouts?

There are also other factors to consider. For example, will there be more cloud cover than usual? If cloud cover blocks the morning sun, solar energy production will dip even further.

“The ultimate outcome depends on cloud cover,” wrote Barry Fischer and Ben Harack, who work for Opower. “If clouds are already blocking the morning sun, for instance, the eclipse will cause solar power production to dip from an already low level to a somewhat lower level than that, and then inch back up again.”

“While Germany’s eclipse is perfectly predictable, the weather on March 20th is not,” Fischer and Harack wrote. “That means utilities and grid operators have to prepare for the most extreme impact and the most dramatic ups and downs in solar power production.”

But European utilities have had months to prepare for the eclipse and make sure backup power is ready to go once solar power starts declining.

Mark Baldassari, director of codes and standards at Enphanse Energy, a California-based solar technology company, told ThinkProgress he only expects a small decrease in solar radiation to occur in the affected area.

“Software controls the electricity load and it is configured to switch loads between the installed solar and wind to conventional or on-site backup generation, such as diesel or battery power, when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing,” Jeff Holland, director of communications at the U.S. utility NRG Energy, told ThinkProgress.

Indeed, U.S. utilities recently dealt with a partial solar eclipse hitting western states, an area containing some of the most solar panel-rich areas of the country.

“So when a partial eclipse obstructed 30 to 50 percent of the sun on the afternoon of October 23rd, the western power grid felt it. Utility-generated solar electricity production plunged between 1:45 and 4:30pm, before returning to a typical late-afternoon pattern,” wrote Fischer and Harack.

“How did the sudden drop-off in solar production affect the region’s power grid? In short, it required utilities and grid operators to fill in the gap,” the two wrote.

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