Support Kings’ PV

Kings College have applied for planning permission to put PV panels on the roof of Kings College Chapel. This wil be decided by the planning commitee on 7 February 2023.

In summary, we believe this is exactly the sort of project that a City like Cambridge should be supporting, so we hope the planning committee will approve it at their meeting on 7 Feb 2023

We have briefly reviewed the paper on the Planning Committee’s agenda for 7 Feb

Here are our comments, to help inform the Councillors’ decision.

It seems widely recognised that the panels will cause no architectural harm and that panels will be largely invisible, from all but a few angles.  From those specific spots, the dark, matt panels will change with the light in a different way to the lead roof, so some have expressed concerns that this might attract the eye and distract from the splendour of the building.  However, even Historic England recognise that this impact is “modest”.

It should be noted that few people are aware that PV panels have been installed for some years on the roof of the Grade 1 listed St Mary’s Church immediately adjacent Kings Chapel. There are also solar panels on the roof of the Guildhall.

City council’s policies have a presumption of support for sustainable development and the installation of renewables.

Climate change brings a risk of severe harm, and it’s imperative that we do everything we can now to reduce emissions and hence the threat. As the National Trust points outIt [Climate change] is the single biggest threat to the precious landscapes and historic houses we care for”.

Several of the objectors commented that the PV saves only 1.4% of King’s carbon emissions, and question whether other things could be done instead, for example installing LED lighting.  However, even if there remains a little lighting that King;s hasn’t yet upgraded, this is a rather a strange rationale for an objection.

The opportunity is now:   The scaffolding is up now to do the work on the roof, and it won’t be up again for many decades. So It’s totally appropriate for Kings to take the opportunity to do the work now, even if there are also simpler things to do in a more gradual way later. Historic England has noted elsewhere that when reducing the emissions of historic buildings, installing solar panels is often easier and lower impact than upgrading insulation or improving glazing (the other common retrofit measures, and that its important to take the opportunity when scaffolding is up)

The panels will directly save 23 tonnes of carbon pa over the 30yr life, or 690T in total, which is non-trivial amount. It seems illogical to object because this is just 1.4% of the College’s emissions. It’s more than 100% of the Chapel’s carbon emissions, a tiny fraction of the City’s Carbon emissions, and even less of the countries as a whole.   No single project will at a stroke get the UK to Net Zero, so we all need to do what we can. 

In addition to the direct (referred to as Scope 1 and 2) carbon saving of 690T, it is also  important to consider the indirect benefit (referred to as Scope 3) of putting PV on an iconic building such as Kings Chapel.  Once the panels have been in place for a short while, few people will notice them. However there’s a very significant educational and inspirational opportunity to tell people about the project in order to inspire millions of visitors and thousands of other historic building owners.  This indirect benefit could easily increase the beneficial impact of the project by a factor of 10, 100 or even 1000.   For example, if the 300,000 paying visitors to Kings Chapel were on, average, inspired to reduce their personal carbon footprint by just 1%, that’s 30,000 Tonnes a year of indirect benefit. This is 1300 times the direct benefit, and more than 5% of Cambridge’s entire direct carbon emissions (BEIS figure for Cambridge’s CO2e emissions : 576,000T pa in 2019)

Kings are to be commended for this proposal.  They’ve looked after the chapel well for 500 years, and are clearly aware that if it is to last another 500 years, we need to take urgent action now to reduce emissions .

In summary, this is exactly the sort of project that a City like Cambridge should be supporting, so we hope the planning committee will approve it.

Decision by Planning Committee

We are very pleased to see that on 7 February 2023, the planning committee unanimously voted to approve the application, despite the planning officers recommendation to refuse it. As Cllr Dave Baigent said during their discussion “.  It’s a very significant building. We have the weight of history on our shoulders. Do we defend what we have? Or be radical, move forward?…. It will be significant in the fight against Climate Change. We as a world leader need to be bold“.

Photos: Kings Parade: Caroe Architecture Ltd Great St Mary’s: Cambridge Solar Ltd