By Diane Porter
Green Right Now

Wouldn’t you just love to pick your house up, turn it this way and that way on the lot, and figure out where it really makes the most sense? The spot where it catches the prevailing breeze, has shade in the summer, sun in the winter, and energy savings year-round?

That’s how houses were placed before air-conditioning, when a family’s comfort inside depended on how well the house functioned. But today, we live in tidy rows on uniform blocks that line up in a way that makes more sense for real estate than anything else. The decision as to which way our doors and windows face was most likely made by a developer putting down dozens of homes at once; the placement of our driveways and patios followed suit.

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    And if the sun bakes us in the summer, or if our living room is freezing in the winter, we tend to focus on things we can do inside the house to mitigate the problem. We turn the thermostat up or down; we dig out the blankets in winter or the fans in summer.

    And we pay for all of it, in comfort and utility bills.

    What to do?

    Tackle the problem from the outside as well. Plant trees.

    Deciduous trees – those that lose their leaves in the fall – will shade a home in the summer and let the sun through in the winter, reducing both cooling and heating costs. Evergreen trees will block a cold wind or shade an air-conditioner year-round.

    “Planting trees to save energy costs makes sense,” said Misha Sarkovich, Program Manager of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s Shade Tree Program. In addition, “you improve the air quality, improve the property values and beautify the community,” he said.

    Sacramento’s utility district, called SMUD for short, has planted more than 450,000 trees since 1990 in a program where homeowners get the trees for free. The Sacramento Tree Foundation has community foresters who visit the homes, work with property owners on tree location and selection (they offer 38 varieties), and then deliver the trees. The homeowner plants the trees and pledges to care for them. And everyone benefits: The homeowner improves the property and saves money; the utility reduces its electric load (which California has required), and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is reduced.

    And the trees do more than provide shade. In essence, each tree creates its own micro climate – in photosynthesis, water vapor escapes through the leaves, creating a minuscule mist – and can reduce the temperature surrounding it by several degrees.

    Sacramento is one of the largest and oldest tree programs in the country, and is a member of the American Public Power Association (APPA), a national organization that represents community- and state-owned utilities.

    The APPA’s Tree Power Initiative encourages utilities nationwide to organize tree-planting activities in their own communities. Since it began its program in 1991, 267 shade-tree programs have been started in 38 states. A list on the web site identifies the companies and cities that participate.

    “The right tree in the right place, that’s our mantra,” said Tobias Sellier, a communications specialist who helps administer the program. “We try to encourage the utilities to be as big a partner as they can in the process,” Sellier said.