Despite recent headlines, petitions relating to the installation of solar panels on church buildings are not new, and the Index to L&RUK includes a number of consistory court judgments. In June 2015, the then Second Church Estate Commissioner, Caroline Spelman, reported: “there are a growing number of listed church buildings, currently over 200, who have successfully managed to install solar panels”.
In 2020, the Church of England General Synod committed to a target of “net zero” carbon emissions by 2030, and in February 2022, amendments were made to the regulations governing changes to buildings. The Faculty Jurisdiction (Amendment) Rules 2022 [“the new Rules”] came into force on 1 July 2022, although the Brief Guide to Solar Panels and Faculty (September 2022) [“the Guide”] predates these provisions. [See also: Faculty changes (2022) and key guidance]. The new Rules introduced changes in three main areas:
- a requirement to have “due regard” to the Church’s “net zero” guidance (s2);
- the need for consultation before starting faculty proceedings in this area (s3); and
- introduction of changes to the procedure for the approval of projects through additions to Lists A and B (s4 and Schedule),
in addition to some Minor Amendments and Transitional Provisions (s5 and s6). The only specific reference to the installation of solar panels in the new Rules is in the Schedule in relation to List B for churches and building which are not a listed building or in a conservation area.
The first case to be considered under the new regulations, Re St. Saviour Croydon  ECC Swk 5, related to the replacement of a heating boiler, a regular occurrence given the average 15- to 30-year life of a commercial boiler. The application of the Church’s “net zero” target to boiler replacement has been problematic for Diocesan Chancellors both before and following the introduction of the “net zero” target, for examples see here, and here,
The need to replace the lead on the college Chapel roof, together with the requirement to achieve net-zero carbon in accordance with the policy of the Church of England, was addressed in the recent judgment Re King’s College Chapel Cambridge  ECC Ely 1 on which we posted the Summary provided by the Ecclesiastical Law Association. Whereas Re St. Saviour Croydon concerned the replacement of an existing gas boiler, Re King’s College Chapel Cambridge was in effect a corollary to the replacement of the existing lead roof – only the PV panels component was subject to judicial scrutiny. The “like-for-like replacement of roof lead or other material covering the roof of a listed building” falls within List B1(6); as such, works covered by List B can be undertaken by an “authorised person” provided that the Archdeacon has been consulted and has agreed that a faculty is not required and has given their approval. For roofing materials, this requires “the installation of roof insulation to have been considered” but not the “embodied carbon .
As noted above, the ELA Summary of the case is posted here, and the technical data extracted from the judgment and the college press release are here. The judgment includes details of submissions made by the amenity societies and consultees: Church Buildings Council, CBC,  to ; The Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (“SPAB”),  to ; The Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Historic Environment Team,  to ; Historic England, (HE),  to . In addition, there are data from the Petitioner’s consultants, Max Fordham , and the Diocesan Advisory Committee  to . These submissions include references to documents not reported in the judgment and consequently, it is difficult to check the various assertions made.
Some of the information provided related to the College Chapel, whilst other considered the panels in relation to the College estate or to the heritage assets of Cambridge as a whole. Furthermore, whilst some energy data were the result of detailed calculation, other information did not seem to have been subjected to such rigorous scrutiny, and some (particularly in the visual aspects) reflected a degree of subjectivity. A further complicating factor for the Court was that only the college Chapel is subject to the faculty jurisdiction.
Broadly, two issues were of concern – the energy generation from the PV array and the visual impact of the proposed 492 panels on the roof. Summarizing the situation, Leonard Ch. commented:
“The fundamental question I will need to consider before deciding whether to issue a faculty is the visual impact of placing solar panels on the roof on the Chapel overall. A subsidiary but aligned issue is that of “reflection” .
Advice submitted to the court on the visual impact of the panels varied widely. However, after a site visit, from his own observations and the generality of the submissions, the Chancellor accepted that the solar panels “will only be seen from a limited number of places and then only to a limited extent”. However, he “[struggled] to see why a “reflection” of a changing sky should adversely affect a visitor’s enjoyment or perception of this historic building [68, 70]. Whether the panels would change the significance of the church as a building of special architectural or historic interest was reviewed with reference to Re St. Alkmund, Duffield  Fam 158 and Re St. John the Baptist Penshurst  Court of Arches (Rochester).
With regard to the Church’s net-zero target, he commented:
“. It is relevant to my consideration whether the Chapel has done anything to reduce its carbon footprint or whether it is simply going for the “easy option” of solar panels. I am satisfied that their application for a faculty for replacing much of the lighting in the Chapel with LED lights and the likely course that they are contemplating when the boiler has to be replaced shows that this is just one, albeit major, element in their general approach to reducing carbon emissions.
“. I have read the arguments about the use of other areas of the estate to provide sites for solar panels. It is perhaps unfortunate that, were the Chapel standing on its own or with limited outbuildings, as might a village church, these arguments would be less easy to mount. In my judgment it is the college’s wish to maximise the number of rooves available for reducing the carbon footprint of the whole college”.
And reflecting the diversity in the responses:
“I am well aware that two emotionally charged considerations come head-to-head in an application such as this: the preservation of a building of outstanding beauty, and the reversal of climate change ultimately to save our planet” .
The Chancellor was satisfied that they would benefit the College and would help it towards reaching its net zero target. He determined that he would grant a faculty for solar panels on both sides of the roof, or on the south side only, dependent upon an updated assessment of the potential carbon payback for the north roof and calculations and observations as to the effect on the structure without an identical weight on the north roof, were the eventual decision to allow for solar panels on the south roof only.
Whilst Re King’s College Chapel Cambridge achieved a pragmatic solution in the instant case, in view of the many different factors involved it provides no easy answers to the general application of the Faculty Jurisdiction (Amendment) Rules 2022.
 The European Commission stated (2020) that “embodied carbon” related to “the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the non-operational phase of a project, namely the emissions released through extraction, manufacturing, transportation, assembly, maintenance, replacement, deconstruction, disposal, and end of life aspects of the materials and systems that make up a building (cradle to grave).”
The Church of England’s A Brief Guide to Solar Panels and Faculty states: “The environmental impact (‘embodied carbon’) of the installation itself should be considered and weighed against the clean electricity produced (‘operational carbon’) to estimate – at least roughly – when the panels will pay back from an environmental perspective. The installer will be able to help calculate this information”.
 The Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (“SPAB”) asserted  that: “The north roof will produce 60% of the electricity of that of the south roof which could result in the north roof having a carbon payback of over 10 years thus emitting more carbon into the climate between now and 2030, not less“. However, solar panels do not emit carbon dioxide – they only have the potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from other energy sources.
This post was revised on 14 May 2023 at 17:58.