Solar power is generally better for the planet than fossil fuel-based alternatives. Trees are obviously good for the planet as well.
But some South Carolina homeowners increasingly feel the need to choose between the two, as The Post and Courier’s Chloe Johnson reported recently.
Rooftop solar panels don’t work well in shade, so embracing home solar energy might mean cutting down trees. That’s not necessarily a sound decision though.
If the only goal is to save money on monthly electric bills, cutting down trees to put up solar panels is probably the best way to do that, as long as the lost shade from particularly large trees doesn’t drive up cooling costs more than the solar panels offset them.
But not everything is about money, of course. And if the goal of investing in solar panels is also to help protect the environment and prevent climate change, cutting down trees becomes even more problematic.
The average South Carolina resident created about 15.5 metric tons — about 34,000 pounds — of greenhouse gas emissions in 2015, according to the Energy Information Administration.
That’s actually down significantly from a decade earlier, and relatively low for the rest of the country, based in part on the fact that the state gets a good bit of electricity from nuclear power.
Still, 15.5 metric tons of planet-warming gases per person per year is a lot, so it’s well worth trying to further reduce emissions and offset them whenever possible. Solar panels reduce emissions. Trees offset them.
But mature trees can only suck about 50 pounds of carbon dioxide per year out of the atmosphere. So it would take more than 680 fully grown trees per person in South Carolina to offset the average person’s carbon emissions.
Most people don’t have that many trees in their yards.
The average rooftop solar installation, on the other hand, can offset as much as 3 metric tons of carbon emissions per year, or the equivalent of about 130 trees. Based purely on that math, solar panels are probably better for preventing climate change if the only trade-off is losing a shade tree.
But it’s still not that straightforward.
Trees provide essential animal habitat. They help prevent floods and absorb rainwater after storms, both of which are crucial in the flood-prone Lowcountry. They help stop erosion. And they look nice.
Besides, some utilities are starting to offer the opportunity to upend the solar vs. trees consideration via community solar programs.
Ratepayers can invest in solar farms in exchange for reductions on monthly power bills. The reductions aren’t usually as much as from a rooftop solar installation, but they don’t require cutting trees down either.
And South Carolina lawmakers can do much more to make solar power a more flexible, practical and effective option in the state. They ought to do so in the upcoming legislative session.
Because if the choice is between solar power and trees, the best decision is “both.”