Energy Saving Potentials and Air Quality Benefits of Urban Heat Island Mitigation

By Hashem Akbari
Heat Island Group, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Berkeley, CA (2001)- Urban areas tend to have higher air temperatures than their rural surroundings as a result of gradual surface modifications that include replacing the natural vegetation with buildings and roads. The term “Urban Heat Island” describes this phenomenon. The surfaces of buildings and pavements absorb solar radiation and become extremely hot, which in turn warm the surrounding air. Cities that have been “paved over” do not receive the benefit of the natural cooling effect of vegetation.

As the air temperature rises, so does the demand for air-conditioning (a/c). This leads to higher emissions from power plants, as well as increased smog formation as a result of warmer temperatures. In the United States, this increase in air temperature is responsible for 5-10% of urban peak electric demand for a/c use, and as much as 20% of population-weighted smog concentrations in urban areas.
Simple ways to cool the cities are the use of reflective surfaces (rooftops and pavements) and planting of urban vegetation. On a large scale, the evapotranspiration from vegetation and increased reflection of incoming solar radiation by reflective surfaces will cool a community a few degrees in the summer.
As an example, computer simulations for Los Angeles, CA show that resurfacing about two-third of the pavements and rooftops with reflective surfaces and planting three trees per house can cool down LA by an average of 2-3K. This reduction in air temperature will reduce urban smog exposure in the LA basin by roughly the same amount as removing the basin entire on road vehicle exhaust.
Heat island mitigation is an effective air pollution control strategy, more than paying for itself in cooling energy cost savings. The cooling energy savings in the U.S. from cool surfaces and shade trees, when fully implemented, is about $5 billion per year (about $100 per air-conditioned house).
Related Resources:
U.S. Department of Energy
Heat Island Group, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory