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Eclipse? What eclipse? The skies may have dimmed over Europe, but the electrical grid survived the temporary loss of solar power.

Solar eclipse fever took over the United Kingdom and Europe in the days leading up to the morning of March 20, 2015. While behind the scenes technicians braced for the shadow falling on some of the 89 GW of European solar power capacity, pundits and analysts tried to stoke fears of a catastrophic blackout of the continent's power grid.

But on the streets of Paris, the prospect of doom was met with the stereotypical Gallic shrug. For some store owners, it was simply business as usual.

"I run my store in such an old-fashioned way that if the power goes out tomorrow, this place will be perfectly fine," said Phyllis Cohen, owner of Berkeley Books of Paris on the Left Bank, holding up a notebook that served for accounting as proof.

Books weren't the only thing safe from a potential blackout. The wine would also be okay, according to Daley Brennan, manager of Maison des Millesimes wine store on the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

"The important thing here is constant temperature," Brennan said. He added that the wine would hold so long as it wasn't exposed to extreme heat or cold, a non-issue as Paris transitioned seasons. "I've seen solar eclipses before. I'm not worried."

Turns out, Brennan had good reason not to be concerned. The grid held up and no blackout occurred as a result of the March 20 eclipse, which lasted for two hours. What's more: the fog and pollution in Paris was so bad that day that no one could see the actual event.

"We had extra balancing reserves on standby in case needed although [we] did not need to resort to them," said a spokesperson for the National Grid, the electricity provider for the U.K. "There was less demand suppression than expected. Fewer people went outside to watch the eclipse as it was overcast; they stayed in to watch television coverage and put the lights on."

The European Photovoltaic Industry Association said the eclipse would be nothing compared to normal power demand.

"The eclipse will be an exceptional event but not an abnormal one," said an EPIA representative. "The everyday demand is more volatile than the solar eclipse, and grid operators are able to keep the system running and have done so for almost a century. If the weather is a bit cloudy, the eclipse will go unnoticed by transmission systems operators."

Germany has 38.5 GW of solar power capacity. In spite of concerns that the reduction in incoming sunlight--followed by a power surge as the moon passed by the sun--would destabilize the German electric grid, no problems were reported.

One factor in Europe's favor was the location of the zone of greatest shadowing. The total eclipse was visible only in a swath running from the Arctic to the ocean south of Iceland. The United Kingdom was one of the solar-using nations closest to path, but prior to the eclipse, Leonie Greene, the head of external affairs for the U.K.'s Solar Trade Association expected impact to be minimal.

"Solar provides around 1.5 percent of the U.K.'s total annual power output currently," Greene said. "More in summer, less in winter. So at this time of year, in the morning, the impact of the eclipse on solar output will be particularly small."

In fact, the impact was so small, electric power output barely deviated from the norm.

"We saw a 2 GW rise over the entire eclipse period and a 400 MW suppression at 9:30--the point of maximum obscuration," said the National Grid spokesperson. "This is within our normal range for forecasting such events."

This year's eclipse may have been a bust, but some are using it as preparation for a future more dependent on solar power.

"The eclipse offers an important experience to prepare for a flexible energy system with even much higher shares of solar power in the future," said the EPIA's representative.

Indeed, looking ahead, while the next potentially problematic total eclipse in Europe won't shadow the continent until 2027, North America has two before then. Total eclipses will cut across the United States on August 21,2017, and April 8, 2024; both will occur at mid-day and both will reduce sunlight by at least half for most of the East Coast and Texas.

No one knows how important solar power will be by then, but it's safe to say that utility managers will be looking at the European experience for some clues as to how much--or how little--to expect.

BRITTANY LOGAN is a writer based in Paris.
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Title Annotation:TECH BUZZ
Author:Logan, Brittany
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Geographic Code:4E
Date:May 1, 2015
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