Energy firms battle to keep lights on during eclipse

Reliance on solar power affects supplies

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Electricity companies across Europe are gearing up for this month's solar eclipse, determined to prevent power outages.

On the morning of 20 March, the moon is set to pass in front of the sun, wiping out most of its light. And this makes for a double whammy: just as solar power sources lose their output, Europe will rush to turn on the lights.

According to European grid operators, some 35,000MW of solar energy, which is the equivalent of nearly 80 medium size conventional generation units, will gradually be lost from Europe's generating capacity before being gradually re-injected over a period of two hours - all while Europe is starting its working day.

"Managing this event on the world's largest interconnected grid is an unprecedented challenge for European [transmission system operators] TSOs," says industry body ENTSO-E.

While it's by no means the first solar eclipse to affect the continent, there's now far more reliance on solar power than ever before - dramatically increasing the chances of power failure.

"The main conclusion of ENTSO-E's Solar Eclipse Impact Analysis is that operational coordination among European TSOs will be crucial," says ETSO-E.

"After thorough operational planning work, TSOs will put in place continuous on line co-ordination between control rooms across Europe ahead of, and during the eclipse to better coordinate the scheduled remedial actions."

The risk will, of course, increase over the coming years as Europe's reliance on solar power increases. At the time of the last major eclipse in August 1999, solar power accounted for just 0.1% of European electricity supplies. That figure's now about 10.5% - and more than 25% in Germany.

In London, the eclipse will start at 8.25am and reach its maximum at 9.31, with the sun 84% covered by the moon - although this still leaves plenty of light to see by.

In Edinburgh, by contrast, where the eclipse begins five minutes later, 98% of light will be lost, making for a much more dramatic spectacle as skies darken visibly. There's more information on viewing times for specific cities here.

As ever, people are being warned not to look at the sun directly - or through a camera or phone. One of the safest ways to watch, and one that's fun for kids, is to make a pin-hole projector by making a tiny hole in one piece of paper and holding it in front of another. The image of the sun will pass through the hole and appear on the screen.

It's not safe to use sunglasses, though welder's glasses rated 14 or higher should be fine, and it may be possible to borrow or buy special eclipse glasses.

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