Watt a conundrum: renewable energy and the historic environment

13.2.23 2 MINUTE READ

Image of King's

Cambridge has over the last week been at the centre of the tussle between protecting our historic environment and adapting our heritage assets to be best equipped to face the ever-worsening climate crisis. This debate has coincided with the formation of a new government department for Energy Security and Net Zero.

On Tuesday 7th February, Cambridge’s City Councillors unanimously approved the installation of 492 solar panels on the roof of the iconic Grade I Listed King’s College Chapel—against the guidance of Historic England and local Planning and Conservation officers—to defiantly “send a message” that they are willing to take strident action to “promote change” in order to combat “the greatest emergency we face”.

What is to be made of this landmark decision?

The emphasis of the council’s discussion was effectively twofold:

  1. Any carbon reduction, no matter how small, is better than none.

And what better place to show how serious you are about such a claim than literally shouting it from the rooftop of the city’s most recognisable building?

  1. Reversibility

The beauty of minimally invasive sustainable technology like solar panels is that they present a negligible impact upon the fabric of heritage assets.

Historic England and the city’s Conservation Officers objected on the grounds of primarily aesthetic impact: covering the surface of the roof would “detract” from and “harm people’s appreciation of the Chapel’s extraordinary architectural character”, emphasising that “important views of the Chapel would be harmed”.

The council decided that the “less than substantial harm” to the fabric of the building was far outweighed by the benefits of encouraging investment in renewable energy technology. The most important views of the building were seen to be unaffected, while the visibility of the panels from other perspectives was not substantial enough to outweigh the benefits. In fact, the visibility of the panels seems to bolster their emphatic statement in support of such proposals. 

Essentially, then, we face conundrum when it comes to the installation of sustainable technology into historic buildings. The answer is to find a balance, whereby the importance of historic fabric and the need for widespread implementation of renewable technologies are not seen as opposites. Rather, they can work in synergy to ensure that we do not prioritise one over the other.

Evidential value - the evidence of the evolution of human interaction with a building - is an important measurement of an asset’s significance for heritage professionals today. Modern renewable technology is part of our current societal evolution, essential for the future survival and viability of our historic buildings. So we should embrace, and in some cases flaunt, the convergence and coexistence of the old with the new, as part of a process of change in the built environment.


Illustration of King's College, Cambridge, by Sam Riley.


Search Bidwells