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Sarah Ettman-Sterner: Solar Energy Fueled by Good Tree Care

Home solar panel success has roots in care and feeding of nature's original sunshine band

Whoa there, Nellie! Before you get out the chain-saw and go hog-wild, indiscriminately hacking back or worse, cutting down overhanging trees and shrubs to prepare your home’s roof for solar panels, consider this beloved poem recited by generations of schoolchildren:

Trees
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

— (Alfred) Joyce Kilmer, 1886-1918

Trees are more than lumber, landscaping and the subject of poetry lessons. Trees are nature’s original solar collectors. They put the so(u)l in solar!

Sarah Ettman-Sterner
Sarah Ettman-Sterner (Nick Sterner photo)

If you dig into the far recesses of your mind to find that oh-so-boring seventh-grade science lesson on photosynthesis, you might recall that leaves are more than yard waste and a nuisance that you have to rake up each fall. In über-simple terms, when the sun’s light hits the leaves of trees and green plants — bing — photosynthesis takes place. Handy little cells called chloroplasts, filled with green pigment, or chlorophyll, are activated, splitting water in the leaf into small chemical components, including the oxygen we breathe — bang. The boom part comes into play when carbon dioxide enters tiny holes in the leaf, called the stomata, reacting with stored energy found in chloroplasts producing a simple sugar. The excess sugar is stored in various plant parts, many of which become the food we eat.

Don’t worry, there won’t be a test! However, why not learn more and impress your friends with some “cocktail factlets” about these amazing natural solar panels? An excellent place to learn about the photosynthetic process, of which all life on earth depends, is the Newton’s Apple Web site.

Still not convinced you should care about this science stuff?

If you’re thinking about making the leap into investing in a solar-panel system to reduce your long-term energy costs, it’s helpful to understand the role trees play and what they contribute to our quality of life. Trees slurp up dreaded C02, make oxygen so we can breathe, create healthy foods and compounds used in medicines, are aesthetically pleasing and enhance property values. All this in addition to the fact that trees create shade that can lower your electric bill, helping us deal with the heat of climate change, and save money. As wonderful as trees are, they can also create problems. Too much shade on your future solar-enhanced roof reduces the full energy-generating potential of your system. Trees that get too big and top heavy from lack of proper care can threaten structures underneath mongo branches during windy periods. Did you know that a tree’s canopy doubles its weight during a rainstorm?! Combine this with high winds, a shallow root system, close proximity to utility wires, improper pruning maintenance, and, the worst party foul of all — planting a tree that is not the right species for your environmental habitat — and you have a potential recipe for disaster.

As more homeowners in urban and suburban settings take advantage of tax rebates and government incentives currently available for roof-top and ground-based solar-energy systems, the rights to free, abundant sunlight can become a touchy subject, pitting neighbor against neighbor in court. In a 2008 National Public Radio Morning Edition” broadcast, David Gorn reported, “A homeowner in San Francisco asked his neighbor to chop down his redwood trees because their shadow is interfering with his solar panels. The neighbor refused. The feud has ended up in court, and the results could have ramifications statewide.” That’s because of a little-known 1979 law, the California Solar Shade Control Act.

In his interview with Gorn, Ken Rosenblatt of the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, pointed out that, “The whole dispute, has put (me) and every DA in the state in a bad spot. That’s because the law requires (me) to treat shade-producing trees as a public nuisance hazard, just like piles of trash or toxic waste.”

This is not to suggest that you need worry about trees near your house/bordering your neighbor’s property line, pick up an ax DIY-style, and get in touch with your inner Paul Bunyan! Those that hack, lack — in terms of creating a solar-energy installation plan that is holistic in approach. This means devoting time to being thoughtful, taking into consideration the natural features on and around your property. Your solar project will have the best chance for success if you engage the services of a professional certified arborist who can work collaboratively with your panel installation company.

“It’s definitely a delicate balance between tailoring a solar photovoltaic system for a home or commercial business that takes full advantage of as much sunlight as possible, without losing the beneficial shade/cooling power that trees provide,” said Tom Burt, who, along with co-owner Jay Johnson operates Sun Pacific Solar.

Burt has developed a keen intellectual and aesthetic sense about solar design. His academic training (he was one of the first graduates of UCSB’s Environmental Studies program), global education honed through travel in different climates and cultures, skill as a world-renowned architectural photographer, and years of living in the fire-prone hills above Santa Barbara, contribute to his growing solar business.

However, he humbly expresses that, “Environmental studies and photography inspired me to do more for the planet. My background complements, but is not a substitute for the experience I’ve gained in this green business sector. There is so much still to learn and share with customers as solar technology continues to evolve.”

Burt applies a combination of common sense, solar science and environmental sensibility when he meets with potential clients.

“Sun Pacific Solar prides itself on conducting a thorough analysis of a commercial or residential property,” he explained. “We take time to carefully review each site, to understand the structure’s architecture, surrounding land and the landscaping. We closely coordinate with city and county requirements.

“We adhere to our customer’s budget, and when it’s necessary, we rely on the expertise of professional arborists for the proper assessment of trees that might be in question.”

Certified arborist Gene Tyburn of Tender Loving Care Tree Services (805.969.4057) finds that with all the economic incentives to go solar, the focus of his tree business is expanding beyond the care and maintenance of specimen oaks and overgrown Chinese elm trees, or removal of fire-feeding eucalyptus.

Part tree doctor, part psychologist and a renaissance man who appreciates opera, Tyburn converts untamed trees into thriving works of art. He creates peaceful order between trees, nature’s solar collectors, the man-made type and people, too.

“However, if a tree is unsafe, diseased, located in a place that negates your solar project, I will inform you and provide sensible alternatives,” he said,

Tyburn’s advice comes from more than 30 year’s of experience working with a wide variety of exotic and native trees. He offers some sage advice: “Keep in mind that a beautiful tree makes your home worth more and is a habitat for other life. It is possible to install a first-rate solar system without forsaking all the good that comes from a well-maintained tree. With the right kind of advice you can have both.”

Additional Information

Tree Care:

Tender Loving Care Tree Services
Gene Tyburn
805.969.4057

Eric’s Tree Service
Eric Bjorklund
805.967.5000

Clayton Tree Service
Fred Clayton
805.896.4151

Solar Electric Systems:

REC Solar
Ace Pascual
805.433.2999

MAC’s Solar
Mike McCrae
805.682.3386

Green Hawk interactive producer Sarah Ettman-Sterner focuses on current environmental trends and marine-related topics. A member of the Society for Environmental Journalists, she provided the “voice” for Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society for more than a decade. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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