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Let’s say you want to install a solar panel on your roof but there’s a tree in the way. Trees are great and all, but for the sake of green energy you’d want to cut it down, right?

Actually, maybe not. In fact, if you own a tree (just one tree!) you may be pleased to note that you are already employing passive solar energy in your home. So, nice work.

Deciduous trees near a house will block sunlight during the summer, providing assistance to one’s air conditioning unit. During the winter, they helpfully drop their leaves, allowing the sun in through the window to heat your home.

Passive solar is so simple that we discredit it as a legitimate means of energy reduction. And more often, we don’t notice it at all: solar panels stand out, but a 50ft oak tree stealthily slips under the radar as a benefit to our heating bills.

Shady trees fall more broadly under the category of things that increase energy efficiency. While solar panels do the glamorous work of creating more energy, a tree can merely help to preserve it. Less flashy, just as important, and likely more affordable for the average homeowner.

On the other hand, a solar system can offset more CO2 than is absorbed by one tree: an imbalance of 102:1, according to one estimate produced by a solar panel proponent. Meanwhile, tree-planting organizations highlight tree benefits such as accessible wildlife habitation. A bird nesting in a solar panel presents a host of ethical and environmental dilemmas. And what do you do if the tree blocking your perfectly aligned south-facing roof belongs to a neighbour?

There are enough difficult questions that the trees vs. solar panels debate has begun generating conflict all over the place.

In California, the giant redwoods are tall enough to block a skyscraper, let alone a two-story house. It’s not surprising in such a litigious state that lawsuits have been filed over redwoods blocking solar panels. It’s bizarre to think that a tiny tree planted in the spring may eventually become a source of conflict, but it makes more sense in the context of a $70,000 investment for a large solar system.

One article relates the following anecdote:

A homeowner in Winter Springs, Florida, spent $26,000 on her solar panels, crossing her fingers that the city would let her cut down a number of trees that blocked her investment. The city did, but only if she planted new trees where the old ones had stood or paid $250 per tree to have it planted somewhere else.

We were trying to do what’s right for the environment," the surprised homeowner told a local television station. "We thought everybody would give us the thumbs-up for it.'

Both trees and solar panels are such well-established environmental darlings that it’s not hard to believe proponents of one or the other would be shocked at meeting resistance. Whether it be a large financial expenditure, or something one has grown for twenty years, it’s hard not to feel entitled to that thing by virtue of an environmental carte blanche.

The decision whether to sacrifice trees or solar panels is an uncomfortable one with no clear answer. One may even be reduced to the old schoolyard argument: “my tree/panel was here first.” We’re likely all better off in avoiding the question entirely. Commit to a tree where you don’t want a solar panel and install a solar panel where trees won’t be grown. Environmentalists have better things to do than pit our saviours against each other.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.

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