Should you cut down trees to go solar?

Trees shading solar panels.

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 before installation. It's a difficult truth, but unfortunately, solar power and trees don't get along. Branches and leaves can block sunlight from hitting your roof, so your solar panels aren't generating as much clean electricity as they would 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 trimming back a few branches before installing 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 environmentally friendly or cost-effective. But ultimately, the net benefits of removing trees to install solar might be worth it.

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 to roughly 11 metric tons of CO2 emissions. Given this, the total CO2 emissions of 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 – 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 your wallet.

Of course, when removing trees from your property, there are other factors to consider outside of environmental benefits. 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, certain "quality of life" benefits are just as important. For example, your trees may be home to some wildlife, provide much-needed shade during the hot summer, or look nice in your yard! This may or may not change your decision depending on your personal preferences – reluctance to lose these benefits is reasonable. Still, for many, solar's environmental and financial benefits 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.

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. 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 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 community solar and see what programs are available near you in our Community Solar Marketplace.

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 trees or installing equipment on your property, look at our Community Solar Marketplace to find local, $0-down community solar options available near you.

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