The observed effects of utility-scale photovoltaics on near-surface air temperature and energy balance

Ashley Broadbent, E. Scott Krayenhoff, Matei Georgescu, David Sailor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

62 Scopus citations


Utility-scale solar power plants are a rapidly growing component of the renewable energy sector. While most agree that solar power can decrease greenhouse gas emissions, the effects of photovoltaic (PV) systems on surface energy exchanges and near-surface meteorology are not well understood. This study presents data from two eddy covariance observational towers, placed within and adjacent to a utility-scale PV array in southern Arizona. The observational period (October 2017-July 2018) includes the full range of annual temperature variation. Average daily maximum 1.5-m air temperature at the PV array was 1.3°C warmer than the reference (i.e., non-PV) site, whereas no significant difference in 1.5-m nocturnal air temperature was observed. PV modules captured the majority of solar radiation and were the primary energetically active surface during the day. Despite the removal of energy by electricity production, the modules increased daytime net radiation Q* available for partitioning by reducing surface albedo. The PV modules shift surface energy balance partitioning away from upward longwave radiation and heat storage and toward sensible heat flux QH because of their low emissivity, low heat capacity, and increased surface area and roughness, which facilitates more efficient QH from the surface. The PV modules significantly reduce ground heat flux QG storage and nocturnal release, as the soil beneath the modules is well shaded. Our work demonstrates the importance of targeted observational campaigns to inform process-based understanding associated with PV systems. It further establishes a basis for observationally based PV energy balance models that may be used to examine climatic effects due to large-scale deployment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)989-1006
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2019


  • Atmosphere-land interaction
  • Heat islands
  • Local effects
  • Renewable energy
  • Surface fluxes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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