Heat island threat to global electricity provision

The rise of urbanisation will put increasing pressure on global electricity provision as climate change demands more efficient cooling of energy facilities and networks.

A new study led by Lund University in Sweden, has warned dense urban areas amplify the effects of higher temperatures, due to the phenomenon of heat islands in cities. This makes cities more vulnerable to extreme climate events.

“Unless we account for extreme climate events and continued urbanisation, the reliability of electricity supply will fall by up to 30%. An additional outlay of 20-60 per cent will be required during the energy transition in order to guarantee that cities can cope with different kinds of climate,” says Vahid Nik, professor of Building Physics at Lund University and one of the authors of the study.

The research has examined the creation of a modelling platform that ties together climate, building and energy system models in order to facilitate simulation and evaluation of cities’ energy transition. The aim is to secure the cities’ resilience against future climate changes at the same time as densification of urban areas is taking place. In particular, researchers have looked closely at extreme weather events (e.g. heatwaves and cold snaps) by producing simulations of urban microclimates.

“Our results show that high density areas give rise to a phenomenon called urban heat islands, which make cities more vulnerable to the effects of extreme climate events, particularly in southern Europe. For example, the outdoor temperature can rise by 17% while the wind speed falls by 61%. Urban densification – a recommended development strategy in order to reach the UN’s energy and climate goals – could make the electricity network more vulnerable. This must be taken into consideration when designing urban energy systems,” explained Kavan Javanroodi, assistant professor in Building and Urban Physics.

“The framework we have developed connects future climate models to buildings and energy systems at city level, taking the urban microclimate into account. For the first time, we are getting to grips with several challenges around the issues of future climate uncertainty and extreme weather situations, focussing in particular on what are known as ‘HILP’ or High Impact Low Probability events,” added Nik.

However, there is still a large gap between future climate modelling and building and energy analyses and their links to one another. According to Nik, the model now being developed makes a great contribution to closing that gap.

“Our results answer questions like ‘how big an effect will extreme weather events have in the future, given the predicted pace of urbanisation and several different future climate scenarios?’, ‘how do we take them and the connections between them into account?’ and ‘how does the nature of urban development contribute to exacerbating or mitigating the effects of extreme events at regional and municipal level?’” he added.

The results show that the peaks in demand in the energy system increase more than previously thought when extreme microclimates are taken into account, for example with an increase in cooling demand for 68% in Stockholm and 43% in Madrid on the hottest day of the year. Not considering this can lead to incorrect estimates of cities’ energy requirements, which can turn into power shortage and even blackouts.

“There is a marked deviation between the heat and cooling requirements shown in today’s urban climate models, compared to the outcomes of our calculations when urban morphology, the physical design of the city, is more complex. For example, if we fail to take into account the urban climate in Madrid, we could underestimate the need for cooling by around 28%,” commented  Javanroodi.

“Our efforts can contribute to making societies more prepared for climate change. Future research should aim to examine the relationship between urban density and climate change in energy forecasts. Furthermore, we ought to develop more innovative methods of increasing energy flexibility and climate resilience in cities, which is a major focus of research for our team at the moment,” concluded Nik.