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King’s College chapel from the medieval era has been impacted by the use of solar panels, bringing it into the modern era of climate crisis.

The first of over 400 solar panels were installed on the roof of King’s College chapel in Cambridge, which may have been seen as unpleasant by traditionalists.

The proposal to install solar panels on the lead roof of the iconic medieval English gothic masterpiece was met with strong opposition from Historic England, who expressed concerns about the potential harm to the historically significant structure. In response, the planning officer for the Cambridge city council argued that while the panels could generate a significant amount of electricity, they would also compromise the authenticity and integrity of the building.

King’s College, which has been around for almost 600 years and is known for its progressive views among Cambridge colleges, received backlash in the Spectator for “virtue signaling” with their installation of solar panels. While the panels will fulfill all of the chapel’s energy needs, they will only contribute 5.5% to the college’s total electricity consumption.

The college provost and dean were filled with joy as they toured the rooftop to view the installation in progress on Tuesday.

Gillian Tett, a columnist for the Financial Times and the newly appointed provost of King’s, stated that it is not just about showing off one’s moral values, but rather about sending a strong message for the need for change. The urgent issue at hand is the climate crisis, and we must think creatively in our efforts to address it. While the symbol may seem insignificant, it serves to reinforce and challenge our current norms.

A view of the chapel from the ground with scaffolding covering one end.

The dean of the college, Rev Dr Stephen Cherry, expressed that he believed the installation of solar panels made the building more relatable. He stated, “It serves as our own personal source of power.”

Cherry admitted he was surprised when the college was permitted to fit the solar array. Councillors sitting on the city’s planning committee only voted unanimously in favour of the panels – against their planning officer’s advice – after a barnstorming appeal by former provost and astrophysicist Michael Proctor.

Walking across the highest point of the roof on the scaffold boards, Cherry expressed, “I was pleasantly surprised since it can be challenging to predict how individuals will prioritize aesthetics versus functionality. Each person may make that decision differently depending on the circumstances. The important thing is that the proposal resonated with the general public. My assumption is that the response would have been different five or 10 years ago.”

The lead roof on the south side was installed in the 1950s, and both sides needed new lead. The new lead is partly made from melting down the old lead, as it is recycled. Panels will be placed on both the north and south sides, with the north side expected to generate 40% of the electricity.

Adam Hyland, the PV engineer, was admiring the view from the building in Cambridge. He could see the Isle of Ely in the north and the Gog Magog hills in the south, with 28 panels installed. He expressed his appreciation for the rare opportunity to have such a stunning view from a building of this quality.

The panels, along with heat pumps, insulation upgrades, and new passive-standard buildings, will assist the college in achieving a net zero status by 2038. These panels were not visible from the traditional view of the Backs and were challenging to detect from the streets and courts behind the chapel’s elaborate pinnacles.

Tett is convinced they will not spoil visitors’ enjoyment of a building which is the quintessential, global image of Oxbridge – although filmmakers of period drama might be forced to get out the CGI.

Tett stated that visitors do not visit King’s College chapel for the roof, but rather for the gothic ceiling, stained-glass windows, and King Henry VIII wooden arch. The purpose of installing solar panels is not to conceal them, as they are visible.

“King’s College takes pride in being forward-thinking. Our stunning building has become synonymous with Cambridge and has been featured in Hollywood movies and on Instagram. With a rich historical heritage, we have the choice to be limited by our past or to use it as a launching pad to move towards the future.”

King’s is not the initial religious structure or top-rated attraction to install solar panels. Other cathedrals, including Gloucester, Salisbury, and Bradford, have also incorporated solar panels. Tett expressed her hope that King’s will serve as a model for the 16,000 churches in England, as they typically face east and have ample south-facing roofs.

“The United Kingdom is abundant with churches that are frequently underutilized. With the large, south-facing roofs, we have the opportunity to send a powerful message and inspire new possibilities that were once thought impossible.”

Source: theguardian.com