Donnachadh McCarthy: The Home Ecologist

'It's the ultimate green dilemma: what should you do when a neighbour's trees shade your solar panels'
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A new angle on the traditional neighbour's-tree dispute has been in the news, with reports of a home owner in California taking his neighbour to court to get them to trim the 60ft redwoods they had planted in their garden 10 years before he installed his 128 solar-electric panels. The trees were overshadowing the panels and slashing the energy they were producing. I can empathise, having spent more than £16,000 on the installation of solar-electric and hot-water panels.

I live between Camberwell and Peckham in south London, but I'm blessed with a long, beautiful, English cottage garden. The downside is that instead of having the usual three neighbouring gardens abutting my plot, I have 11 different properties adjoining my garden. In addition, because many of them are small early-Victorian houses, they are popular starter homes for young couples, who scarper as soon as the children arrive, as they generally do not want to bring them up in the inner city. Indeed, one lovely young couple with two youngsters left last week saying they were fed up of local youths shooting one another. This urban turnover of neighbours means having to start negotiations from scratch over tree heights every few years.

Almost every one of these neighbours has decided at one time or another to plant their own trees, which threaten not only to overshadow my garden but also to cause problems for my solar panels and wind turbine. We all want happy relations with our neighbours, so I can't help thinking that guidance from garden centres on ideal trees for urban gardens, with dwarf root systems and suitable heights, would be useful. After all, who wants 100ft-high redwoods destroying neighbourly tranquillity? Meanwhile, I'm left with a very peculiar eco-dilemma: high trees and neighbourly harmony versus daylight and renewable energy.

Of course, the Californian dispute is one between two environmentally benign practices. An average tree stores about a ton of carbon dioxide over its lifetime, whereas a modest domestic solar-electric system saves about a ton of carbon dioxide every year. California decided the solution was the Solar Shade Act, which makes it illegal for trees to overshadow solar panels.

Meanwhile, I have lost the use of the end of my garden as a vegetable plot due to one newish neighbour refusing to pollard their overhanging trees, as had been done for more than 100 years, though my solar panels have escaped overshadowing – so far. Indeed, last week, one of my new neighbours came up with a wonderful win-win by donating the wood from the trees she had pruned in her garden to my woodpile so I could use it as fuel for the wood-burner. Long may our neighbourly relations remain so helpful!

It would probably be a wise move for government planners to look at regulations to make everyone's responsibilities clear. We wouldn't want to bet our emerging solar-panel industry on the goodwill of neighbours. That's just asking for trouble.

Donnachadh McCarthy is an eco-auditor and the author of 'Easy Eco-auditing'