Cambridge's King's College chapel roof covered in solar panels to reduce its carbon footprint

  • Forward thinking or cultural vandalism? Matthew Hudson reports on a project that has split opinion.

A centuries-old Cambridge chapel roof is being future-proofed with the controversial introduction of nearly 500 solar panels - a move that has split opinion in the university city.

Work has started to install the 438 panels on the north and south sides of the roof of King’s College Chapel.

The plan was criticised by Historic England after it was given the green light by planners because the organisation said the work would be done "at some cost to the beauty of Cambridge’s finest building".

Dr Gillian Tett, provost at King’s, said the solar panels on the 15th-century roof would be an "inspirational symbol of our commitment to being good stewards of our environment".

The renewable energy technology will reduce King’s College’s carbon emissions by more than 23 tonnes per year and help the college in its ambition to decarbonise its operations by 2038.

It is hoped the panels will be fully fitted by the end of this year and power from them will be generated by early next year.

Dr Tett said: "Many people love the chapel, they love the silhouette, they love it as the face of Cambridge, and we’re very mindful of that responsibility.

"Out of that responsibility there also becomes a chance to send a wider message about the need to try to grapple with climate change.

"We’ve tried to take measures which reduce the visual impact of the solar panels. We’ve lowered them slightly so you can’t see them quite so easily.

"The reality is you can still just about glimpse them if you look hard and that, frankly, is a reminder to all of us that we need to think about how we’re living for the future."

Stephen Cherry, Dean of King's College Chapel in Cambridge, which has 438 new solar panels on the roof. Credit: PA

The Rev Dr Stephen Cherry, Dean of the Chapel, said: "Whilst the economic input of the solar panels are valuable in monetary terms, its main public benefit is in the carbon saving over a period of many years.

"It must also be seen as part of the college’s drive to make its buildings, and especially the chapel, more efficient and as a tangible example of how the chapel can and should be contributing to the moral and ethical wellbeing of this place of learning."

Shane Alexander, college project manager, said the panels were put on in conjunction with work to replace the grade one-listed chapel’s lead roof, which had exceeded its natural lifespan and was no longer watertight.

Overall roof restoration began in September 2022 and work on the solar upgrade started in March.

The project has been exclusively funded by philanthropic donations made to the chapel and college over many years.

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