Where Money Grows on Trees

By Jane Braxton Little
Washington, DC (May 1, 2009)- The article is helpful in explaining how shade trees are saving homeowners money by reducing their electricity usage- and thus bills- while also improving their property values, too. What’s more is that Congress is on the verge of recognizing this, too. Over the last couple years, ACT staff and board members have worked closely with Congresswoman Matsui to develop federal legislation that would encourage utility companies to partner with local nonprofit tree planting organizations to plant trees to reduce residential energy demand. The purpose of the legislation is to help homeowners lower their electric bills (and help utilities lower their peak load demand) by reducing residential energy demand caused by the need to run air conditioners and heaters at a high level. We’re pleased to announced that the bill recently passed through the House Energy Committee.

If you think money doesn’t grow on trees, visit Sacramento, California. Or Tucson, Arizona. Or Waverly, Iowa. These cities are among the dozens nationwide planting shade trees that are saving homeowners hard-earned cash by reducing their electricity costs and improving their property values, too.
Today these towns are pioneers at the forefront of a movement poised to spread across the country as homeowners and utility companies alike seek to trim their power usage. With new studies verifying savings of between $25 and $33 per tree, shade trees are moving beyond their age-old aesthetic role to become part of America’s energy- and cost-conscious future.
“They have a triple whammy effect,” says Glenn Cannon, former chairman of the American Public Power Association. “They beautify. They store carbon. And if put in the right place, they create energy efficiency benefits.”
Interest in energy conservation is mounting as electricity costs rise and scientists document the effects of greenhouse gases produced by generating electricity. With new support from the Obama administration, a variety of forest organizations is including strategic tree planting among their plans to restore both the environment and the economy.
American Forestsand the Communities Committee are proposing a national project focusing on energy conservation and urban forests, as well as climate change. They are rallying around President Obama’s $789 billion economic stimulus legislation to direct funds for energy efficiency and renewable energy toward shade-tree programs.
The Alliance for Community Trees (ACT) is mobilizing cities nationwide to apply for $3.2 million in stimulus funds, to be made available in federal block grants for energy projects. Urban forest groups, as partners of utility companies, hope to maximize the potential benefits of trees for energy conservation in cities throughout America.
“Planting trees is such an easy, cost-effective way to conserve energy. And what better way to stimulate the economy than through the creation of a green workforce?” says Deborah Gangloff, executive director of American Forests.
All this enthusiasm for shade trees was little more than a vision 20 years ago. Utility companies scattered across the country began testing the effects on energy usage by planting shade trees in strategic locations. The American Public Power Association, a service organization representing more than 2,000 community-owned utilities, launched Tree Power. This program recognized not only the beauty trees add to communities, but also the role trees play in conserving energy. Building on its slogan, “the right tree in the right place,” Tree Power today has more than 260 member organizations planting trees to reduce energy usage.
In Iowa and Illinois, Shannon Ramsay started Trees Forever, a national nonprofit that promotes environmental stewardship through effective tree planting. In 1991 it joined Alliant Energy, an investor-owned public utility, to promote shade-tree programs in 36 Midwestern communities.
The most advanced program started about the same time in California. Sacramento Municipal Utility Company (SMUD) officials were wrestling with the Mediterranean climate that scorches the region on a handful of summer days. They were looking for a way to meet these peak load demands without building another power plant, says Jan Schori, the public utility company’s general manager for 15 years. “Did we really want to build a new plant for 12 days a year?”
Instead, SMUD officials launched a shade-tree program with the Sacramento Tree Foundation. They began offering free trees to homeowners who agreed to plant them in sites specifically selected for the late-afternoon shade they would cast on houses. When Tree Foundation foresters visit homes to choose a tree site, they consider everything from cardinal orientation and distance from the building to tree size and species. The Sacramento Shade Tree program has developed a total of 72 possible site scenarios, but only 27 are allowed in the program’s strict guidelines.
The goal of the program is singular: energy savings, says Misha Sarkovich, a SMUD program manager. “This is not a free-tree program. This is not an urban forestry program. This is a shade-tree program designed to capture energy and capacity saving for SMUD,” he says.
Since starting their partnership in 1990, SMUD and the Tree Foundation have planted over 450,000 trees. As they mature, each tree saves the homeowner an average of 156 kilowatt-hours a year. At 10 cents a kilowatt-hour, one tree knocks $15 a year off the utility bill and adds another $25 to the property value. Even at SMUD’s rates, which are 30% lower than Pacific Gas and Electric Co., three trees in a yard generate $70 in annual savings. The combined energy conserved last year alone reduced the electricity SMUD generated by 1.7 million kilowatt-hours. The shade-tree program is one of the factors in its energy-efficiency portfolio that contributed to the district’s decision to postpone building a new power plant, Sarkovich says.
Joan Lionetti worked with Tretheway as part of the avant-garde of the shade-tree brigade. A co-founder of ACT, in 1989 she established Tucson Clean and Beautiful, a citywide environmental organization aimed at preserving the environment and conserving natural resources. Lionetti soon set about creating partnerships within the business and residential communities. One of them was with Tucson Electric Power, the city’s investor-owned utility company serving a population of around 1 million people. Tucson Electric agreed to fund Trees for Tucson, which includes a shade-tree program.
Utility customers can apply for two trees at $8 each if they agree to plant them on the east, west or south side of their houses. Owners of houses built before 1979 are eligible for four trees. Most are five-gallon varieties of mesquite or sweet acacia. Trees for Tucson delivers the trees and inspects the site, offering tips for tree planting and care. In 20 years the program has planted over 63,000 shade trees in the sprawling southern Arizona city. It has reduced the demand for electricity by 31 million kilowatt-hours, saving Tucson Electric around $3 million.
“Citizens understand the value of energy efficiency on a global scale,” Lionetti says. “They want to know how to calculate their individual carbon footprints – how they can help.”
Waverly, Iowa could hardly be more different from Tucson. Set in open country 100 miles northeast of Des Moines, it is a town of fewer than 5,000 residents served by Waverly Light and Power, a community-owned public utility company. Glenn Cannon was general manager in 1991 when the company joined Trees Forever, then a two-year-old organization promoting effective tree planting in the Midwest. When Trees Forever created a local committee to provide management and education, Waverly joined the shade-tree movement.
Today the power company provides $10,000 a year for tree planting, says Mike Litterer, assistant general manager. Unlike Sacramento and Tucson, Waverly is using trees to help buffer the stiff winds that whip across the northern plains in winter. In addition to planting deciduous trees on the west and south sides of their houses to reduce their use of air conditioners, residents here can also select conifers for the north sides. More than 6,500 new trees have gone into the ground since 1991 for a savings of 307,000 kilowatt-hours, Litterer says. The shade-tree program has earned the small utility company more than energy savings. People appreciate the investment Waverly Light and Power is making in the community, creating beauty and improving property values, Litterer says.
Despite these pioneering efforts nationwide, the idea of using trees to conserve energy has been slow to spread. Some blame lackluster interest at the federal level. Others note that investor-owned utilities have a profit incentive that sometimes works at cross-purposes with reducing electricity usage. Litterer blames a general lack of imagination. “The payback is hard to demonstrate,” he says.
That may be changing. Two recent studies have documented the savings provided by shade trees in dollar values and electrical usage. Unlike previous calculations based on computer models, these reports used actual utility bills and household data to determine the effects of planting shade trees.
In his analysis of 460 single-family homes in Sacramento, Geoffrey Donovan, a research forester with the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station in Portland, Oregon, found that well-placed trees can reduce a homeowner’s summertime electric bill by about $25 a year. His study documents critical details, including where to place trees for maximum benefits and exactly how they impact the carbon footprint. Donovan found that shade trees placed within 40 feet of the south side of a house, or within 60 feet of the west side, will generate about the same amount of energy savings because of the way shadows fall at different times of the day. Tree cover on the east side of the house has no effect on electricity use in Sacramento, where summer mornings tend to be cool. But on the west side, a shade tree can reduce net carbon emissions from summertime electricity use by 30% over a 100-year period. Half of the savings come from sequestering carbon, half from reducing electricity use, Donovan says.
The Alabama study, conducted by David Laband of the Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, surveyed 160 homeowners to determine the annual energy savings provided by shade trees. Laband documented electricity costs at 11.4% less for a house with 17% heavy shade coverage. That amounts to savings of between $31 and $33 a month at local utility rates, Laband says. Estimating dollar savings from shade trees is not an exact science. Climate, utility rates, and study methodologies all contribute to the differences in dollar values. What’s important is that all of the studies show the positive of shade trees in real dollars, says Sarkovich, the SMUD manager.
Advocates of shade-tree programs believe the time is right for expanding these documented benefits to communities across America. The Obama administration’s philosophy and optimistic attitude, combined with the economic stimulus funds, offer a welcome boon for tree planters, says Lionetti.
American Forests and the Communities Committee are proposing demonstration shade-tree programs in Detroit and Baltimore. Alice Ewen Walker, ACT’s executive director, hopes her 160 member organizations will win block-grant funds to finance energy efficiencies through strategic tree-planting programs.
ACT and American Forests are also among the groups promoting federal legislation introduced last year by Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA). The Energy Conservation Through Trees Act would encourage utility companies to form partnerships with local nonprofit tree-planting groups, allowing homeowners to lower their utility bills and utility companies to lower their peak load demands. The legislation requires science-based guidelines for placing trees to ensure maximum energy savings and avoid conflicts with power lines or pre-existing infrastructures for solar- or wind-energy production. It also requires partnerships with local organizations that would run the technical side of the program.
Related Resources:
American Forests- Where Money Grows on Trees
Sacramento Tree Foundation
Trees Forever
Trees for Tucson