The environmental benefits of solar power are often quantified in terms of an equivalent number of trees planted. Ironically, maximizing those benefits may involve cutting down trees. Does it ever make sense to sacrifice a tree for the greater good? Sometimes, the answer is “yes.” It’s not always an easy decision, so here’s some information that may help you decide if that’s the right way to go.
It’s a difficult truth, but solar power and trees do not always get along. Branches and leaves can block sunlight from hitting your roof, which, for obvious reasons, can be problematic if you are looking to maximize the benefits of a solar panel installation. The good news is that most homeowners can usually get away with trimming just a few branches. At most, the typical homeowner may need to remove one whole tree. Still, many homeowners hesitate to sacrifice trees for solar, since it doesn’t seem an environmentally-friendly or cost-effective solution. The truth, however, is that the net benefits of removing trees to install solar can be huge.
Here’s how the math works: According to American Forests, one tree stores about 0.5 metric tons of CO2 over its lifetime. We’ll assume that removing one tree lowers the net reduction of switching to solar by the same amount. Additionally, we also need to factor in the CO2 emissions involved in manufacturing the solar panels being installed. Producing a typical 5 kWh solar system emits about 10 metric tons of CO2, so the total CO2 emissions associated with removing one tree and installing a residential solar power system are about 10.5 metric tons.
For the removal of the tree to make sense, the net CO2 reduction will need to exceed 10.5 metric tons. That seems like a lot at first, but when you calculate the CO2 emissions you will offset by switching to solar from fossil fuels, it isn’t much at all. Your solar panels should generate at least 6000 kWh of electricity per year, and should last for approximately 25 years. This means that over the lifetime of your panels, you will produce about 150,000 kWh of emissions-free electricity. This translates to a whopping 103 metric tons of CO2 offsets over the life of the panels! At this point, the choice should be obvious, but in the interest of being thorough, we’ll still do the math. Subtracting the original 10.5 metric tons of CO2 emissions needed to install the panels from the 103 metric tons of CO2 benefits they will generate results in a net benefit of 92.5 metric tons of CO2 offsets– the equivalent of planting more than 180 trees. While it’s not good news for the tree in question, it’s phenomenal news overall.
We recognize that there are other factors to be considered, too. There’s an expense for removing a tree (anywhere from $75 to $1,000+ according to costhelper.com) so that could extend your payback period slightly. There are other less quantifiable factors to consider as well. The trees in question could house wildlife, shade your home during the summer, or provide aesthetic or other “quality of life” benefits. How these costs affect the equation is a function of your personal preferences and may or may not change the outcome. For most people, though, removing one or more trees to install solar panels is an excellent investment – from both a financial standpoint and an environmental standpoint – and shouldn’t stand in the way of upgrading your home with solar.