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Charlotte joins national effort promoting 'smart surfaces' to fight climate effects

Charlotte fire station 43 on Clanton Road has both a light-colored "cool roof" and lighter-colored concrete parking area, which cool the surrounding area by reducing the sunlight reflected into the atmosphere.
David Boraks
Charlotte Fire Station 43 on Clanton Road has both a light-colored "cool roof" and a lighter-colored concrete parking area, which cool the surrounding area by reducing the sunlight reflected into the atmosphere.

Electric vehicles and renewable energy have gotten most of the attention as the city of Charlotte works to fight climate change. Other tactics aren't so visible — like cool roofs and porous pavement, both examples of what's known as smart surfaces.

"Smart surfaces are surfaces that reduce the need for energy to heat and cool structures," said Sarah Hazel, the city's chief sustainability and resiliency officer. She said city policy already requires these tactics in new or renovated buildings and street improvements, which can also save money.

Charlotte has a goal of powering all city vehicles and buildings without fossil fuels by 2030. Converting to electric buses and cars, and planning solar farms helps with that. But the materials it uses on and around city facilities can also help address the side effects of climate change, like flooding and urban heat islands.

"We're talking about things like solar, reflective pavements, green roofs. We're talking about things like trees, or carbon sequestering concrete … our parking lots, our roofs, how we're using our city streets, how we're using our city sidewalks," Hazel said.

Some recently constructed police and fire facilities incorporate smart surfaces. Charlotte Fire Department's Station 43 on Clanton Road has a cool roof and concrete parking lot.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's Independence station has a cool roof covered with solar panels. The Central Division headquarters is getting rooftop solar panels and battery storage.

Lighter-colored surfaces reflect sunlight, instead of absorbing it and raising surrounding temperatures as asphalt and tar shingles do. That's critical as climate change brings the kinds of record-high temperatures seen this summer.

Meanwhile, porous pavement lets water flow through it into the soil, instead of running off into streets and storm drains and causing erosion amid more intense storms.

This month, Charlotte became one of 10 initial members of a new initiative from the nationwide Smart Surfaces Coalition. Cities participating in the Cities for Smart Surfaces effort get access to a cost-benefit analysis tool, data and education to help expand the use of these tactics. And participating cities can share what they've learned, Hazel said.

“This July 4 was the hottest day on Earth in recorded history. City residents worry and need city leaders to understand which surfaces can deliver cooler, healthier neighborhoods, save money and be implemented immediately,” Greg Kats, founder and CEO of the Smart Surfaces Coalition, said in a press release.

Besides Charlotte, the Cities for Smart Surfaces include Boston; Columbia, South Carolina; Atlanta; Jacksonville, Florida; New Orleans; Dallas; San Antonio, Phoenix and Portland, Oregon.

Read more about the city of Charlotte's Strategic Energy Action Plan.

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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.
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