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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Trees or solar panels?

For years I’ve wanted to install solar panels on our roof. My sister Kate is an environmental activist who was an early adopter of solar power here in New England. 

Kate and her solar array
 Since installing her solar panels in 1998, she has generated her own electric power, selling power back to the grid when she generates more than she uses.

    To enable this, she first made her house as energy efficient as possible. That’s the cheapest way to reduce your use and cost of electricity, Kate points out.

    More recently, my brother- and sister-in-law, who live in sunny Los Angeles, have been able to use their solar power to charge Bob’s plug-in gas-electric hybrid car, so a significant part of his driving is carbon neutral. 

Wouldn't it be great to power your car with solar-generated electricity?

    I would love to generate electric power at home like these inspiring family members and dispense with power from coal, gas and nuclear sources. The problem is that we live in an older suburb, so we’re surrounded by mature trees. That’s a good thing. After all, one of the basic recommendations for addressing climate change is to plant trees, because they sequester carbon. 

     They also shade the house, screen it from the wind, and even lower the ambient temperature in summer. These “ecological services” decrease our energy use for cooling and heating.

Street trees convey many environmental benefits

    I called a solar installer to ask if our roof would qualify for solar panels. Looking at satellite pictures of our lot, he said we’d have to ask the city to cut down our street trees to let sunlight fall on the roof. But our town has lost so many street trees over the years, there’s an active volunteer organization working hard to replant. I didn’t want to eliminate healthy street trees, even though they are Norway maples.

    I asked Kate for advice. She didn’t favor cutting down the trees either, to my relief. She pointed out that I can achieve my sustainability goal a different way. We can choose to get our electric power from renewable sources.

    So far I’ve found two suppliers that both look reasonable. CleanChoice Energy uses power from wind and solar farms from New York to Maryland. Mass Energy Consumers Alliance offers two plans, one strictly Massachusetts wind power, the other a mix of sources including twenty-five percent in-state wind,

solar, and anaerobic digester gas power and seventy-five percent “low-impact” hydroelectric power. 

We could opt for wind power

     Of course the electric power coming into our house won’t magically change to pure golden renewable energy. If we opt for the renewable sources, the energy we draw from the grid will be matched with energy from renewables. That will increase demand for renewable energy and, over time, help bring the price down. Right now we’ll have to pay an extra (tax-deductible) $20 per month for peace of mind. 

    In the current political climate, with the EPA on the chopping block, it’s a cost I’m willing to pay. That way we can still live surrounded by trees.

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