According to a 2011 report by the International Energy Agency, “the development of affordable, inexhaustible and clean solar energy technologies will have huge longer-term benefits. It will increase countries’ energy security through reliance on an indigenous, inexhaustible and mostly import-independent resource, enhance sustainability, reduce pollution, lower the costs of mitigating climate change, and keep fossil fuel prices lower than otherwise. These advantages are global.”

The vast capacity of solar energy should not be understated: Solar has the potential to be much more than just a supplement to fossil fuels and nuclear power; the technology has the capability of eventually replacing them outright. For example, all of Europe’s energy needs could be met by capturing just 0.3% of the light falling on the Sahara and Middle Eastern deserts alone.

Given that solar power now also costs less to produce than nuclear energy, the nations of the world have few excuses left for not developing their solar resources. Here are the 10 countries alternatively leading the charge, according to the latest European Photovoltaic Industry Association estimates on each nation’s total photovoltaic peak power capacity.

Solar panels at sunset

 Photo credit: Pink Dispatcher/Flickr

1. Germany

Germany is by far the world’s leader in solar PV capacity, producing 24,700 MW annually. That’s nearly twice as much as the world’s second leading nation, Italy– and there’s no indication that they’ll be slowing down anytime soon. In the last 5 years, the price of installing PV systems in Germany has decreased by 50 percent, due in large part to the country’s feed-in tariffs introduced by the German Renewable Energy Act.

How they plan to get more:

The government in Germany has already set the ambitious target of 66 GW of solar PV capacity by 2030, the required pace for which they are currently exceeding. Germany’s plan is also to get 25 percent of its total electricity from solar by 2050.

Solar panels in Italy

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2. Italy

Italy led the world last year, adding a whopping 9,000 MW in newly connected capacity in 2011. Their cumulative total now sits at about 12,500 MW of solar PV production annually, second in the world.

How they plan to get more:

Having quadrupled their PV capacity in 2011, Italy has set the bar high for the future. Though 2011′s pace will be difficult to maintain, Italy is poised to continue as a world leader in solar production thanks in large part to high incentives from Conto Energia.

Mount Komekura Photovoltaic power plant

Photo credit: Wikipedia

3. Japan

The Japanese are known for their embrace of technology, and they’re no different when it comes to clean tech. Japan installed 1,100 MW of newly connected PV capacity in 2011 and now sit at a cumulative total of 4,700 MW annually.

How they plan to get more:

The Japanese government has set some ambitious targets: 28 GW of PV capacity by 2020 and 53 GW by 2030. A feed-in tariff was enacted in 2009 to help those goals along, and most new homes in Japan are now built with solar power installed.

Barack Obama speaks at Nellis AFB

Photo credit: Wiki Commons/Brian Ybarbo

4. United States

The United States is home to the largest solar power installation in the world, the Solar Energy Generating Systems facility in California. Currently the U.S. is forth in the world in solar PV production at about 4,200 MW annually, however the country produces more than double that capacity when all types of solar technology are accounted for.

How they plan to get more:

Solar power could produce 10 percent of the Unites States’ total electricity needs by 2025 according to some estimates, and many individual states have enacted ambitious renewable energy goals that could surpass those estimates regionally if accomplished. For instance, California has passed legislation requiring utilities to obtain 33 percent of their power from renewable energy by 2021.

PS10 Solar Power Tower

Photo credit: Wiki Commons

5. Spain

Spain was second in the world in total PV solar production just over a year ago, but have fallen into a tie for forth with the United States after a very slow 2011 which saw them add “only” 400 MW to their total capacity. Still, the sun-rich nation sits at a respectable 4,200 MW in annual production, and adds even more solar power thanks to their state of the art solar thermal power plant, PS10.

How they plan to get more:

Spain was hit hard by the 2008 economic downturn, and subsidies for solar power were drastically cut in that year and have been cut further since. Nevertheless, the fact that they continue to increase their solar capacity annually is encouraging.

Solar panel with Tibetan prayer flags

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6. China

China saw its cumulative PV capacity grow by 2,000 MW in 2011, to a total of 2,900 MW. Their contribution to solar production worldwide is much more substantial though. For instance, in 2007 the Chinese were already producing approximately 23% of the world’s photovoltaic products. Solar technology production is growing at a rapid pace in China.

How they plan to get more:

Though China is, in a sense, exporting more solar technology than they are utilizing themselves, they have set an ambitious personal goal of 20-30 GW of domestic production by 2020.

France Solar

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7. France

France saw 1,500 MW of newly connected capacity in 2011, but the country has a cumulative installed capacity of just 2,500 MW. So 2011 was a big year, though much of the infrastructure for that was already completed in 2010.

How they plan to get more:

Unfortunately, a new legal framework in France aims to limit the annual market size to 500 MW, which could put a damper on some of the growth they experienced in 2010-11. Nevertheless, France is still plays a major role in the European Union’s total renewable energy goals.

Solar panels in the Czech Republic

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8. Czech Republic

After two hectic years in which the Czech Republic’s solar production from PVs jumped to nearly 2,000 MW annually, 2011 saw a major downturn. Even so, the nation still ranks comfortably among the world’s leaders in cumulative production.

How they plan to get more:

The Czech Republic literally fell off the map in 2011, producing only around 10 MW of newly connected capacity. Opposition from major stakeholders was to blame for the downturn, and it may be a while before the country regains the blazing pace it set in 2009-10. Still, those years showed the world just what the Czech Republic could accomplish with the right backing.

Solar flowers in Belgium

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9. Belgium

The Flemish market in solar PV production boomed again in 2011 by 550 MW, improving their total annual production to 1,500 MW.

How they plan to get more:

Flemish company Katoen Natie has announced plans to build the largest solar institution in Europe, which should increase solar power in Antwerp and the surrounding region by 25%.

Windorah Solar Farm in Australia

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

10. Australia

The hot, arid, and little-populated central landmass which makes up much of Australia is ideal for solar energy production, and the industry is growing rapidly there. Last year saw 700 MW of annual production from PVs added to the grid, over half of the country’s cumulative total of 1,200 MW.

How they plan to get more:

Feed-in tariffs, mandatory renewable energy targets and other incentives have been enacted to assist the country in reaching its solar energy goals. A program called “Solar Cities” has also been launched, which promotes solar power and other renewable sources of energy in urban areas throughout the country.

Main image: Pure3d/Flickr