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Historic buildings could use solar panels to protect from rising energy costs

Exterior of Bath Abbey

Researchers have carried out a feasibility study and found that installing solar panels on the Grade I listed Bath Abbey could save around 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, significantly reducing the carbon footprint of the Abbey and other key heritage buildings that are difficult to insulate.

The team, including researchers from the University of Cambridge, examined the dimensions, tilt and orientation of the Bath Abbey roof, along with historic weather data and shading of the roof from spires, to model the best configuration for 164 photovoltaic (PV) panels and estimated the amount of electricity that could be generated in a normal year.

They found that the setup could produce around 45 megawatt hours per year, which accounts for roughly 35% of the Abbey’s annual usage. The equivalent amount of carbon dioxide saved, versus buying the electricity from the National Grid, would be around 10 tonnes per year, significantly reducing the carbon footprint of the building.

A cost-benefit analysis showed that the system could pay for itself in 13 years and provide a profit of £139,000 over a lifespan of 25 years. It would also future-proof the Abbey from rising costs of energy bills. The findings show that despite a large initial outlay, the system would be financially feasible for the historic Grade I listed building.

Their findings are published in the journal Energy Science & Engineering.

“It’s very difficult to insulate historic Grade I listed buildings like Bath Abbey, so installing solar panels is a good way to reduce the carbon footprint of these buildings,” said first author Matthew Smiles from the University of Liverpool. “With increasing energy prices, installing solar panels could result in large cost savings.”

In the model, the panels were sited such that they couldn’t be seen from the street, so they would have a minimal visual impact on the historic building.

“Not only does it make financial sense, but the installation of solar panels on Bath Abbey could inspire reinvigoration of solar PV deployment in the UK which has stagnated over the past five years,” said co-author Adam Urwick.

“It was exciting to contribute to work on such an iconic building in my hometown,” said co-author Alan Bowman, from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. “We’ve shown that it’s possible for historical buildings to reduce their carbon footprint without impacting how they look from the ground, demonstrating that almost everyone is able to help tackle the climate emergency. I’m hopeful our work will encourage other historical buildings to consider installing solar panels.”

The research was performed as part of the Bath Abbey Footprint programme, part of the Church of England’s Shrinking the Footprint campaign, which aims to reduce the carbon footprint of its historic buildings.

The Bath Abbey Footprint programme has already reduced its carbon footprint by using the geothermal hot springs of the local area to provide underfloor heating and installing LED light bulbs to illuminate the interior.

Although environmental and planning rules must also be considered carefully, installing solar panels is another potential way the Abbey could reduce its footprint further.

Nathan Ward, Footprint Project Director at Bath Abbey, said: “The research will help us greatly in exploring the use of solar panels on the Bath Abbey roof. The Abbey is highly committed in the outstanding care of both our built and natural environment and to reduce our carbon footprint.”

The research was carried out by a team of PhD students from the Centre for Doctoral Training in New and Sustainable Photovoltaics: a consortium of seven universities and 12 industrial partners led by the University of Bath and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The universities are: the Universities of Bath, Cambridge, Liverpool, Loughborough, Oxford, Sheffield and Southampton.

Matthew J Smiles et al. ‘Next steps in the footprint project: A feasibility study of installing solar panels on Bath Abbey.’ Energy Science & Engineering (2022). DOI: 10.1002/ese3.1069

Adapted from a University of Bath press release.

Installing solar panels could help historic buildings beat the rising costs of energy, according to a new study.

I’m hopeful our work will encourage other historical buildings to consider installing solar panels
Alan Bowman
Exterior of Bath Abbey

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