In pictures: We go up to King’s College Chapel roof as it sends climate message by installing solar panels
In an historic first for the grade I-listed King’s College Chapel, work is about to be completed on the installation of 438 new solar panels.
This follows a year-long conservation project to fix the chapel roof after the lead covering exceeded its natural lifespan, meaning it was no longer watertight.
Realising that work on the roof was urgent, the college took the opportunity to install the solar panels at the same time while scaffolding was still in place.
“This is an historic moment for King’s College Chapel and Britain’s architectural heritage,” said provost Dr Gillian Tet. “It is only one step on the road towards cleaner, greener energy but it is a potent and inspirational symbol of our commitment to being good stewards of our environment.”
After an extended period of consultation with bodies including the Diocesan Advisory Committee of Ely Diocese, Historic England and the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, Cambridge City Council unanimously approved the college’s proposal for the solar panel installation. Work on the roof restoration began in September 2022 and solar panel installations began in March 2023.
Shane Alexander, college project manager, said: “The installation of the panels has been designed to dovetail with the crucial conservation works to the chapel roof.
“The restoration required that the entire lead covering was removed, recast and replaced, all while maintaining access to the building for visitors, daily services and concerts. The project was extraordinarily complex and has been delivered by a fantastic team.”
Arrays of 219 panels that have been fixed to each of the north and south slopes of the chapel roof will generate an anticipated 123,000 kilowatt-hours per year which feeds into the college’s on-site electricity supply.
The photovoltaic panels, which form one facet of the college’s strategy to decarbonise its operations by 2038, will reduce the college’s carbon emissions by more than 23 tonnes each year – the equivalent of planting 1090 trees.
The new panels, combined with existing panels installed on the Wilkins Building and Old Garden Hostel student accommodation, will reduce the annual electricity demand of the college’s main site by approximately 5.5 per cent.
The chapel joins a number of churches and cathedrals which have already installed solar panels, including Salisbury and Gloucester Cathedrals and Great St Mary’s, the University of Cambridge’s church. The project has been funded by philanthropic donations made to the chapel and college over many years.
The Rev Dr Stephen Cherry, dean of King’s College, 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.”
Speaking to the Cambridge Independent on Tuesday, he added: “It’s very exciting today because the first 20 panels are now installed on the north side, and we can see the racking up here, which means that the whole roof is going to have solar panels on it – 440 altogether, generating electricity that we know will be generated greenly, taking pressure off the mains system, and supplying about 5.5 per cent of what we need on the main King’s campus. That is including a few other solar panels we’ve got around the place.”
Dr Cherry, who has been inspired by the project to install solar panels at his own home, said the chapel’s panels will be “switched on” early in the new year.
And what message does he believe the decision to place solar panels on such an iconic building send?
“This tells us that we’ve done the right thing by working hard to conserve the fabric of the chapel by replacing the lead roof that was deteriorated and letting dangerous amounts of water in. We’ve also done the right thing by looking into the future and saying, here’s an opportunity to to turn this vast roof into a space that generates green energy,” he said.
He continued: “King’s College Chapel is iconic. And in this gesture we’re catching the moment, not only their kind of interest at the moment, but the need of the moment, to be looking forward with as much care and responsibility as we look backward.
“This place represents tradition and stability, but actually, we are leveraging that to bring a message of seriousness about stewardship for the future.”