How King’s College Added 438 Solar Panels to a 500-Year-Old Chapel

The project sparked debate over how to decrease carbon emissions while preserving the historic structure’s architectural beauty

Solar Panels King's College Chapel
Workers install solar panels on the roof of King's College Chapel in Cambridge, England. Justin Tallis / AFP via Getty Images

The historic chapel at the University of Cambridge’s King’s College recently got an eco-friendly makeover.

The iconic 500-year-old structure is an architectural marvel featuring impressive stained-glass windows and the world’s largest fan-vaulted ceiling, completed in 1515. Recently, workers wrapped up a year-long project to install 438 solar panels on the English Gothic church’s roof.

The new panels will generate an estimated 123,000 kilowatt-hours of energy per year, according to a statement from the university. Combined with existing solar panels on nearby buildings, they are expected to lower the college’s annual electricity demand by around 5.5 percent.

The decision to alter the landmark’s roof sparked debate. Critics argued that the panels would detract from the structure’s historic exterior.

“Solar panels may be forward-looking, in the spirit of King’s, and they may bring some small savings in carbon emissions,” David Abulafia, a retired historian at Cambridge, wrote in Spectator magazine when the project was approved last year. “But they are out of place in the outer fabric of one of Britain’s most extraordinary buildings. They are, quite simply, another example of virtue-signaling.”

King's College chapel vaulted ceiling
King's College Chapel has the world's largest fan-vaulted ceiling. Justin Tallis / AFP via Getty Images

Stephen Cherry, dean of King’s College, thinks the panels model a responsible approach to the climate crisis, allowing the chapel to be seen as a force for good in the city.

“Whilst the economic input of the solar panels [is] valuable in monetary terms, its main public benefit is in the carbon saving over a period of many years,” he says in the statement. “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 well-being of this place of learning.”

How much do the panels stand out? According to the New York Times’ Mark Landler, they aren’t particularly noticeable for anyone on the ground near the cathedral, though they can be seen more clearly from a distance.

“We’re not trying to pretend that the solar panels are invisible, because they’re not,” Gillian Tett, provost of King’s College and a columnist for the Financial Times, told the Guardian’s Patrick Barkham in November.

“People don’t come to King’s College Chapel to see the roof,” she added. “They come to see the Gothic ceiling, the stained-glass windows and the King Henry VIII wooden arch.”

Installing the panels was a delicate, multi-step process. Workers welded them to a newly added lead roof, and an accidental spark during this step could have had catastrophic consequences, as Toby Lucas, the site manager overseeing the construction, tells the Times. He conducted daily thermal imaging to prevent fires, ensuring workers hadn’t left any hot spots on the structure.

“It’s an iconic landmark in Cambridge, and it’s part and parcel of where I live,” he adds. “You don’t want to be the person who is responsible for burning part of it down.”

The solar panel project is the latest sustainability effort from the college, which aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2038. England is home to some 16,000 churches, and Tett hopes the project will inspire some of them to take similar measures.

“The U.K. is stuffed full of churches which are often not being used very much. We’ve got all those big south-facing roofs,” she told the Guardian. “This is giving a real strong symbol to everyone to imagine things that were once unimaginable.”

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