Cambridge in row over plan to fit solar panels on King’s College Chapel roof

University of Cambridge King’s College chapel solar panels eco-friendly power clean energy - Bav Media
University of Cambridge King’s College chapel solar panels eco-friendly power clean energy - Bav Media

King’s College Cambridge has been embroiled in a row over the installation of solar panels on its chapel roof which critics said would harm the “beauty of Cambridge’s finest building”.

The 15th-century late Gothic, Grade I-listed chapel overlooks the picturesque Backs and represents one of the most famous images of both the city and its university.

However, recent plans submitted by the college to install solar panels on its roof have provoked strong opposition from heritage organisations.

On Tuesday, Labour councillors went against guidance from planning officers to approve the college’s application to install 492 solar panels on the north and south sides of the 288ft-long roof.

‘Sending a message’ to world leaders

The unanimous vote by seven councillors aimed to “send a message” to world leaders to implement energy-saving installations elsewhere to combat “the greatest emergency we face”.

Planning officers had advised that the proposals be refused because of the harm to the chapel’s appearance.

The planning officer’s report stated: “The proposal would create a radically different character and appearance than the traditional lead roof.

“It would visually detract from the architectural character of the roof and skyline, and be discordant with the architectural composition of this exceptional and historically iconic building.

“It would erode its authenticity and integrity. It would result in less than substantial harm... therefore the public benefits arising from the carbon reduction are not sufficient to outweigh the harm to the chapel.”

‘You wouldn’t put them on the Pantheon’

After the vote, Historic England said in a statement that it was “disappointed by the decision of Cambridge City Council and the Diocese of Ely to grant permission for solar panels to be installed”.

It added: “We understand King’s College’s commitment to sustainability and its goal to achieve net zero by 2050, but we regret that this is to be done at some cost to the beauty of Cambridge’s finest building.”

The organisation added that it aimed to show how “heritage can play its part in positive climate action” and that it supported installing solar panels on historic buildings “where appropriate”.

“There are many sites across Cambridge where renewable energy could be generated without causing harm to the city’s exceptional historic character, or to other aspects of its amenity,” it said.

Other residents had also raised objections to the scheme, with one local stating: “You wouldn’t put them on the Taj Mahal or the Pantheon.”

‘Urgent and vital necessity’

Prof Michael Proctor, provost of King’s College, outlined the benefits at the meeting, saying: “In the context of the climate emergency, these measures are not merely beneficial but essential.”

He added that he saw the move as an “urgent and vital necessity” and it was just one of the measures being carried out at the college, including improving insulation.

The installation of photovoltaic solar panels would power 100 per cent of the electricity used by the chapel, with leftover energy going into the King’s College estate and sold back to the National Grid.

It would save 27 tons of carbon per year and would represent a 1.7 per cent reduction in carbon consumption across the estate.

Cameron Holloway, a Labour councillor for Cambridge’s Newnham Ward, said that the indirect benefit of the panels could be even greater than the direct decarbonisation.

“This is the type of ambitious and pragmatic project needed so Cambridge can be enjoyed for years to come,” he said.

The proposal was accepted unanimously by the seven councillors, with the criteria that a glint and glare assessment must be undertaken at the request of Cambridge City Airport, which opposed the proposal.