Carbon Balance with Renewable Energy: Effects of Solar Installations on Desert Soil Carbon Cycle

Understanding soil carbon cycle dynamics in utility-scale desert solar installations is crucial to determine the net environmental benefits.

The Regents of the University of California, Berkeley Campus


Berkeley, CA

Recipient Location


Senate District


Assembly District



Amount Spent



Project Status

Project Result

The research team continuously collected tropospheric climate and physical and biological soil data at six undisturbed sites within the Mojave National Preserve. Chemical, physical, and organic and inorganic carbon measurements were completed on all soil samples collected from the six sites. Data from the sites has been used to parameterize the DayCent ecosystem process model. Installation and sampling of two in-situ monitoring stations located at a utility-scale solar facility was completed in 2018. Data collection of temperature, water content, and corresponding CO2 concentrations continued through 2019. The final report was published 2020.

The Issue

Deserts are impacted by both the development of large-scale solar installations and the temperature changes associated with human induced climate change. The effect of these impacts on the soil organic (biomass) and inorganic (calcium carbonate) carbon budget is unknown. It is crucial to gain quantitative understanding of whether desert ecosystems will lose carbon as a result of both solar field installations and climate change, as well as to identify the environmental costs and benefits of renewable energy development in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Project Innovation

project installed soil and meteorological sensors at sites with solar
installations and in adjacent undisturbed areas to make direct
comparisons on the gains or losses of carbon, changes in microclimate
and hydrology, and changes in dust generation or capture, and is aiming
to predict long term soil and GHG emissions changes based on geochemical
modeling. The project addressed the question of whether land alteration
and modification during the construction and use of solar installations
has a measurable impact on the soil carbon balance, and ultimately on
the net carbon savings that solar installations provide during their

Project Benefits

The research project -- the first of its kind -- determined the impact of large solar arrays on the carbon storage of desert soil ecosystems. Findings can provide insights into the most effective ways to design and manage solar production facilities for maximum net carbon benefits.

Lower Costs


The research estimates the mass of net carbon change in desert soils due to solar site development and climate change. These metrics for soil carbon gains and losses could be incorporated into renewable energy credits (RECs) and

Environmental & Public Health

Environmental Sustainability

The research estimates GHG emissions arising from net changes to the natural soil carbon cycle caused by utility scale solar installations, reduces regulatory uncertainty, and facilitates more efficient environmental approval pro

Key Project Members

Project Member

Ronald Amundson

Contact the Team