Moving on to Sunnyvale and the Case of Redwoods v. Solar Panels



In case you missed it, here’s an update on the neighbors in Sunnyvale, CA with conflicting enviro-goals: trees versus solar panels.
It’s been reported widely (Google news full results here) and rightly so because this is a big deal.  In this case, the plant-lovers lost out to the lovers of solar energy because California’s Solar Shade Control Act outlawed the shading of solar panels. 

So let me weigh in here.  Even if they don’t give a damn about trees for any of their other attributes, you’d think that proponents of energy savings would advocate the use of trees to shade homes, most especially in a place called Sunnyvale.  Okay, maybe not those redwoods that also shade in the winter, but certainly deciduous trees strategically located on a southern exposure.

And how efficient are those solar panels, anyway?  I recently heard an award-winning "green" architect speak and she made the point that they’re only efficient if they’re kept really clean, something that homeowners are pretty negligent about doing.  Thus, she recommends their use only on commercial buildings and most especially, power plants themselves.

But I have a funny feeling that someone else might want to weigh in on this question.

Photo credit.

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Susan Harris

Susan’s a garden writer, teacher and activist in the Washington, D.C. area. Co-founder of GardenRant, she also wrote for national gardening magazines and independent garden centers before retiring in 2014. Now she has time for these projects:

  • Founding and now managing the pro-science educational nonprofit GOOD GARDENING VIDEOS that finds and promotes the best videos on YouTube for teaching people to garden.
  • Creating and managing DC GARDENS, the nonprofit campaign to promote the public gardens of the Washington, D.C. area, and gardening by locals.
  • Creating and editing the community website GREENBELT ONLINE to serve her adopted hometown of Greenbelt, Maryland (a “New Deal Utopia” founded in 1937).
  • Also in Greenbelt, MD, writing the e-newsletter and serving on the Board of Directors for the cooperatively-owned music and arts venue and restaurant called the NEW DEAL CAFE.

Contact Susan via email or by leaving a comment here.

Photo by Stephen Brown.


  1. hmm. I think there’s a wider issue than the reduced viability of the panels here. Planting 7 of one of the biggest fastest growing trees on the planet in such a position that they can shade your neighbours house is probably unneighbourly behaviour come what may. It reeks of the leylandii hedging issues that torment suburban britain.

  2. If you can afford to install solar panels then you can afford someone to keep them clean.

    If placed appropriately they are damn efficient. That’s why they are being so widely installed here in California.
    As with all landscape ( softscape and hardscape ) elements such as trees, shrubs, arbors, swimming pools, solar panels , etcetera , proper site analysis is require to get it right.

    Perhaps unbeknownst to those not familiar with growing redwood trees , they can be hedged.

    It is not a tree that I would specify for such a horticultural endeavor , but it is done and if you want relative immediate gratification and have the financial means to keep up with the maintenance then it is a viable solution for certain site specific locations.

    The couple located in Sunnyvale, which is just 10 minutes south of Redwood City could have their cake and eat it too. It is possible to hedge their trees for their desired privacy yet allow for their neighbors to receive the solar gain that their panels require in order to work to full capacity.

    BTW, Sunnyvale is located in the natural growing range and migration pattern for redwood trees.

  3. If my neighbors planted California redwoods on our shared border, a “hedge” that threatened to turn into a hundred-foot wall of greenish-black, I would risk arrest to cut them down.

    Trees like that belong in forests, not suburbs.

  4. As someone who gardens on an old lot with large trees, I understand the love/hate relationship. Yes, it’s important to plant shade trees but there are many trees unsuitable to this purpose especially when you live on small urban or suburban lots. Redwoods are one of them.

    Julie at the Human Flower Project has just posted an interesting analysis of good and bad trees for urban settings.

  5. The idea of planting redwoods on a suburban street seems ridiculous. Strategic planting of shade trees is not. It can be so important that SMUD, (I can’t remember what that stands for exactly – Sacremento Municipal Utilities dept, maybe) has a program of giving homeowners appropriate shade trees along with siting advice to help save energy during their long hot season.

  6. Solar panels are far more useful in giant arrays than individual homes. (The exception is when they’re in remote rural areas that can’t easily be served by other power sources.) Some places in California’s Central Valley have temperatures over 90 degrees for much of the summer and yards with redwood trees are wonderfully cool in this climate. However, our local power company has installed solar panels in parking lots, which provide shade for the cars and power at the same time.

  7. Suburbs belong in the 21st century. They need to become productive, not just a habitat for the helpless and a giant drain on the planet.

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