trees shading solar panels

Should you cut down trees to go solar?

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When we talk about the environmental benefits of solar power, we often compare the overall carbon offset of a solar panel system to the environmental impact of planting trees. Ironically, maximizing the benefits of solar power may mean cutting down a tree or two prior to installation.  It’s a difficult truth, but unfortunately, solar power and trees don’t really get along. Branches and leaves can block sunlight from hitting your roof, which means your solar panels aren’t generating as much clean electricity as they could otherwise be in a sunny area.

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The good news is that most homeowners with trees on their property can usually get away with just trimming back a few branches before putting up a solar panel system. However, some people may have to accept that solar is not feasible for their property unless they remove trees. Understandably, many homeowners hesitate to sacrifice trees for solar power because it doesn’t seem like a particularly environmentally friendly or cost-effective solution. But ultimately, the net benefits of removing trees to install solar might be worth it.

Environmental impact of removing trees for solar

According to American Forests, a single tree in the forest can store about 0.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-eq) over its lifetime. Considering the cradle-to-grave environmental impact of a solar panel system–from manufacturing, to installation, to disposal–the lifecycle emissions of a typical 6-kilowatt (kW) solar panel system comes out to roughly 11 metric tons of CO2 emissions.  Given this, the total CO2 emissions associated with removing one tree and installing a residential solar power system are roughly 11.6 metric tons.

For the removal of the tree to make sense from a carbon reduction standpoint, the net CO2 reduction needs to exceed 11.6 metric tons. That seems like a lot at first, but a 6 kW solar panel system should generate at least 6,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per year for 30 years.

This means that over the lifetime of your panels, you will produce more than 180,000 kWh of emissions-free electricity. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that comes out to 127 metric tons of CO2 equivalent over 30 years.

Subtracting the original 11.6 metric tons of CO2 emissions needed to install the panels from the 127 metric tons of CO2 benefits they will generate results in a net benefit of 115.4 metric tons of CO2 offsets – that’s the equivalent of planting more than 100 trees! While this isn’t great news for your tree in question, it is good news for the environment – and for your wallet.

A note about carbon offset assumptions

There are a lot of factors that go into calculating the emissions impact of installing a solar panel system versus using electricity from the grid, including the solar insolation in your area, the size of your solar panel system, and where your grid electricity comes from (i.e. fossil fuels or renewable energy technologies). The estimates above come from general numbers provided by the EPA and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. If you’d like a more custom estimate of how many tons of carbon dioxide you can offset by switching to solar, sign up to receive solar quotes on the EnergySage Marketplace.

Other factors to consider when thinking about tree removal

Of course, when it comes to removing trees from your property, there are other factors to consider outside of environmental benefit. Here are just a few to keep in mind as you’re making a decision:

Health & happiness benefits

While less quantifiable than other factors related to tree removal, there are certain “quality of life” benefits that are just as important to consider. For example, your trees may be home to some wildlife, provide much-needed shade during the hot summer months, or simply just look nice in your yard! Depending on your personal preferences, this may or may not change your decision – reluctance to lose these benefits is reasonable, but for many, the environmental and financial benefits of solar make removing one or more trees worthwhile.

Costs

The cost to remove a tree can be less than $200 or more than $2,000 depending on your geography, the number of trees, the height of the tree(s), the company providing the service, and more. Tree removal will increase the upfront cost of going solar, but you’ll quickly make up for that extra cost through your electricity bill savings. 

A solar option for people who can’t or don’t want to remove trees

After considering all the factors above, you may decide you don’t want to remove trees – or maybe you can’t! Fortunately, in many areas, you can “go solar” and support clean energy without installing any equipment on your property thanks to community solar.

Community solar allows you to purchase electricity bill credits from local solar farms in your area. By subscribing to a community solar program, you can help encourage the development of local renewable energy projects and save 5 to 10 percent on your electricity bill, all without any change in electricity service.

Community solar is quickly growing in popularity, but it is not yet an option in every state. You can learn more about how community solar works and see what programs are available near you in our Community Solar Marketplace.

Compare your rooftop and community solar options on EnergySage

Want to see how much carbon you can offset by installing rooftop solar panels? Sign up on the EnergySage Marketplace to receive up to seven custom solar quotes from local installers. Alternatively, if you want to support clean energy and “go solar” without cutting any trees or installing any equipment on your property, take a look at our Community Solar Marketplace to find local, $0-down community solar options available near you.

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