Is it okay to cut down a tree in order to install solar panels? This complex question must consider emissions, as well as the continuity and value of nature.
An analysis by the European Environmental Commission suggests that a single tree will sequester 22 kg (48.5 lbs) of carbon per year in its physical structure (until the 3 trillion trees die and release themselves as methane). Each acre of mature forest is inhabited by 100 to 400 trees, sequestering 4,850 to 19,400 pounds of carbon per acre each year.
Keep in mind, those aforementioned carbon sequestration rates only apply to full-bodied, mature trees. Brush trees and saplings capture only a fraction of the volume of carbon of large mature trees, which is an important factor to consider when deciding whether or not to fell trees.
When we look at the emissions offsets produced by solar installations, the numbers depend on differences in how each region’s electricity is generated, as well as the time of day that region’s electricity is generated. The hydroelectric power that supplies the majority of upstate New York’s electricity is considerably cleaner than the coal plants that supply roughly half of the electricity to Nebraska, and therefore solar installations in Nebraska offset many times more emissions than equivalent installations located in upstate New York.
According to the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, the nation averaged 0.85 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per kilowatt-hour generated. Thus, an average 400 W solar panel generating 1.5 kWh per watt per year* will offset 510 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.
*Solar panel output varies greatly by geographic region – panels installed in the South generate more electricity than those in the North.
A single solar panel offsets a carbon emissions equivalent exceeding that of ten mature trees. The average residential solar installation, roughly 7,000 watts, offsets the emissions equivalent of more than 180 trees. A single acre of solar panels with a capacity of 250,000 watts can be expected to offset more carbon emissions than 6,500 trees.
So if the argument were purely based on emissions, a single residential solar installation is already worth more than a few trees. And a single acre of densely populated solar panels offsets at least 16 to 65 times more emissions than a forest of the same size.
Another encouraging fact is that the solar emissions offset value isn’t the final word on a facility’s offset emissions. Solar power facilities that are installed on top of well managed, carbon sequestering land may end up producing additional carbon offsets.
For instance, analysis suggests that an acre of grazed native plants underneath the solar facility may improve soil at a rate of 1 ton of sequestered carbon per year, and that carbon and other nutrients may accumulate for 12 to 15 years before the soil is fully saturated.
Researchers who modeled prairie grasses in the upper midwest United States, see that that native grasses planted as part of 10 GW of solar generation capacity would sequester 129.3 tons of carbon per hectare; that is 65% and 35% greater than either an agriculture or a solar-turfgrass scenario, respectively.
So while it is true that we need large swatches of interconnected, undisturbed nature to have a healthy environment that supports human life over the coming millennium, it is also true that cutting down some trees, in specific situations, provides a net benefit from an emissions reduction perspective.
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While interesting, consider the mix of facts surrounded by burning wood, eg: oaks from North Caroling, cut, chipped and crushed into pellets for UK to burn in “green” wood-fired generating plants. Hmmm…both good and bad?!…some say; depending which side of the tree or solar panel you’re on.
Environmentalists are agonizing over CO2, methane, tree reqrowth carbon sequestration…that incidentally takes another 100 +/- years over the life of the tree(s).
Does anyone really think all this “green stuff” matters to solar customers trying to cut real “green backs” from their electric bills?
Solar should focus more on the economics of large scale solar farms at 1/4th the cost of rooftop arrays and 30+% greater efficiency with single-axis tracking bifacial panels.
While our utilities and governments figure out how to rebuild more and better nuclear plants to provide the majority of our electrical supply 24/7/365/40+yrs, not just when the sun is shining.
With that mindset, carbon should pretty much take care of itself. How and why exactly? Truth is, most are too busy raising families and working to notice or care. They just want lower bills for electricity, water, sewer, gas and gasoline, food, education, transportation, healthcare and entertainment. Carbon just isn’t worth worrying over the paper it’s written on.
Properly regulated utilities will or should be passing along future fossile fuel savings to ALL their customers and shares of profits as dividends to their shareholders who upfronted the costs of new solar farms.
It’s more about the money financing our standard of living regardless of where we live…than whether solar panels can be converted to lifetime tree equivalents.
We’ve got much greater problems to solve. Like dealing with landfills to bury our non-recyclable trash and wretched excess we finally managed to dispose of.
So…what about building more clean burning Waste To Energy Plants like the twelve we have in Florida. They efficiently recycle trash to kWh while reclaiming glass for road fill, and metal$ for money afterwhich sterile non-biodegradable ash (just 10% of the combusted mass) goes to landfills with no methane to worry about?
Ours in St Petersburg generates enough kWh to power 40,000 homes.
Quit worrying about plastic bags and the straw in one turtles nose in Costa Rica. Burn ’em to kWhrs, and supplement the furnace heat with solar energy if that makes $ense along with “feeling good.”
The next glaciation is ~60,000 years out when ocean levels will drop 100+ METERS, global temps will fall 8deg C, and nothing man can do will prevent it.
Oh, solar panels and windmills in North American latitudes will be covered by a 2 mile thick sheet of ice…for the 8th time…we think we know about…until our “nuclear sun” melts it again…with solar energy.
Big picture, just sayin. 😜
Trees also provide habitat and shade for the forest floor; produce the necessary oxygen we need to breath and the construction materials that we build our homes from. While solar panels do shade the land under them and turn sunlight into electrical energy, they do none of the other thing’s trees can do. This looks like an ad for lumber companies trying to free up National Forests for harvesting trees for profit and not having to replant afterwards. There are plenty of rooftops in our country to add solar to without cutting down a tree to make it profitable. You can always trim a tree shorter for less shadow and still have it do its job for our planet.
Edward: Good points but PLEASE don’t ‘feed’ the troll.
Junk mail destroys 100 million tree a year…
Solution: Make them pay 1st Class Rates…and while we’re at it…AMAZON too!
Unbelievable anti-green nonsense that would have the whole planet covered with solar panels and call that good. Utterly disgusting that this has even been published here. You should be ashamed.
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