How to make trees an energy savings solution

tree on powerline
A tree falls on a power line in an urban environment.

By Kristen Bousquet

Trees and electricity do not always pair well together.

Linemen are regularly trimming trees that have grown to interfere with the power lines causing safety and grid reliability issues. Municipalities are always working to build more resiliency to power outages, sometimes due to tree interferences during storms, and homeowners can become dissatisfied when their favorite tree is cut back or removed completely.

Fortunately, many utilities see past the burden of trees and instead view them as a natural solution to some of the biggest issues they are up against today. Trees aid in energy conservation, stormwater filtration, carbon sequestration and much more. And technology like i-Tree shows how strategically planted trees can reduce energy consumption by 20-30% for a residential homeowner and triple the overall tree value and benefits from them.

Here is how a healthy community tree canopy can save energy, make utility customers happier, improve the health of the environment and reach sustainability objectives.

Get Energy Saving Benefits Through Trees

While urban trees and forests are a beautiful addition to homes and communities, they are also an economical and highly effective way to reduce energy use and save money. According to a report from the University of Nebraska, the annual value of tree cover on private home property is $31.5 billion nationwide and provides a $73 billion benefit to society from environmental benefits such as carbon sequestration, filtration and stormwater management. This goes to show trees are a simple, reliable and cost-effective solution to many of the issues faced today.

Many utilities recognize this which is why utility foresters like Ryan Quinn at Berkeley Electric Cooperative, the largest not-for-profit electric cooperative in South Carolina, decided to partner with the Arbor Day Foundation’s Energy-Saving Trees (EST) program to offset the removal of trees interfering with electrical distribution lines. Ryan’s team members understood that trees in the community increase property value, provide better air quality and reduce their members’ electric bills, so they were looking for a solution.

As an EST partner, the utility was able to not only provide customers with free, native trees, but also utilize the EST online tree portal which includes an online mapping tool that helps homeowners identify the ideal location to plant the trees for optimal energy savings. Providing this tool also gives the utility more control of what gets replanted near their rights-of-way by only providing the option of lower growing trees that will not eventually interfere with electrical lines.

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“We have received an overwhelming positive response from the community. Our members are truly appreciative of the opportunity to be provided with these high-quality flowering trees for their yards,” says Quinn.

Earn Customer Appreciation Through Trees

Additional benefits utilities see from providing their customers with complimentary trees are the face-to-face opportunities they otherwise lack. Oftentimes, utilities will only hear from customers when they are displeased with the utility, so having the chance to see their customers for a positive reason completely changes the dynamic and allows them the opportunity to answer questions, form relationships and build trust.

Customers are Duke Energy Florida’s top priority. For more than 10 years it has been a Tree Line USA Utility celebrating Arbor Day annually with the communities it serves. When it became an EST partner, it was able to reach a larger portion of its customer base with the intention of providing materials that showcased how trees enhance the community and how to avoid utility conflicts. The educational aspect was key and the positive impact it has had on Duke Energy Florida and the communities they serve is invaluable.

“The more times that we can get information to our customers about the benefits of trees, how to care for them and ways to avoid utility conflicts, then the more able we are to manage a healthy community canopy,” says Nick Esposito, the divisional vegetation management specialist at Duke Energy Florida. “The EST partnership is helping to meet our customers’ needs while providing environmental benefits to the communities we serve.”

Show Results Through Trees

It has already been established that trees are critical to energy conservation and customer appreciation, but many utilities take it one step further by showing their impact through the recording of trees planted, the cumulative effect those trees will have for a specific amount of time and the amount of carbon dioxide sequestered. This is relevant, newsworthy data utilities can use to attract positive public exposure and awareness for the work they are doing in the community.

Relying on data and logistics when it came to administering a tree program was a struggle Black Hills Energy faced as a growth-oriented energy company based in Rapid City, South Dakota and serving 1.2 million natural gas and electric utility customers in eight states. The logistics were complicated and was a big lift administratively. The EST program solved these challenges prior to the pandemic, but also provided great value during it since the website and systems used made it easy to shift to delivery so customers could claim their free trees safely.

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“The data that EST provides following each giveaway season makes incorporating the program’s impact into our sustainability and corporate reporting so easy – all of the information that we need is provided in clear numbers,” says Carly West, community affairs manager at Black Hills Energy.

Meet Sustainability Objectives Through Trees

A sustainable future is important to the utility sector which is known to quickly adopt sustainable practices in comparison to other industries. Entergy Corporation is an integrated energy company delivering electricity to 3 million utility customers in a four-state service territory including portions of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. It is one of those utilities continuously looking for effective environmental improvement opportunities for their longtime and ongoing commitment to protecting and preserving the environment.

By utilizing its environmental initiative fund, Entergy Corporation was able to form partnerships with conservation organizations to meet its sustainability objectives, partner with customers and save customers money by planting trees for maximum energy efficiency benefits. Since Entergy Corporation implemented a tree giveaway through the EST program in 2018, it has provided customers with over 5,700 trees and received robust customer participation and positive feedback from tree participants.

“We love that customers see the benefits of planting trees and are partnering with us on this initiative,” says Kelli Dowell, Entergy Corporation’s director of sustainability and environmental policy who manages the Environmental Initiatives Fund. “Together, we are helping create cleaner, more sustainable communities.”

Make Change Through Trees

There is hope for reducing the energy drain in cities and urban areas where the greatest demand for energy remains. Trees are one of those tools utilities can utilize to create healthier cities and happier homeowners. Utilities like Berkeley Electric Cooperative, Duke Energy Florida, Black Hills Energy and Entergy Corporation have proven that trees and utilities can co-exist for the betterment of the community and their citizens. All it takes is the right tree in the right place.

Learn more about Arbor Day Foundation’s Energy-Saving Trees program.

About the Author

Kristen Bousquet is a program development manager at the Arbor Day Foundation and the lead for its Energy-Saving Trees program and the phytoremediation assessment program. The Arbor Day Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit conservation and education organization. Since 1972, more than 400 million Arbor Day Foundation trees have been planted in neighborhoods, communities, cities and forests throughout the world. Kristen can be reached at kbousquet@arborday.org.

Author

  • Jennifer Runyon is a Senior Content Director at Clarion Energy, writing, editing and posting content on POWERGRID International and planning conference sessions for DISTRIBUTECH's live and virtual events. She is the conference advisory committee chair for DISTRIBUTECH International. You can reach her at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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