'Win-win' proposal to cover Norfolk church roofs in solar panels

Catherine Rowett, solar panels and All Saints Church in East Winch

The idea of covering Norfolk's church roofs in solar panels has been floated by former Green MEP, professor Catherine Rowett. Background: All Saints Church in East Winch - Credit: Antony Kelly/Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire/Ian Burt

A UEA philosophy professor and former Member of the European Parliament has proposed covering the roofs of every Norfolk church in solar panels. 

Professor Catherine Rowett, who represented the East of England in Brussels from May 2019 to January 2020, said installing panels on churches for community energy use was a “win-win situation” for all involved. 

The idea was floated at a recent debate organised by the Norwich Society, where prof Rowett - a Green Party member - said: "I had a project to work to get solar panels on the roofs of all churches in all villages in Norfolk - because every church has a huge, south-facing roof.

“There are very good systems that you can get that are compatible with heritage regulations and you could have community minibuses that are charged from these things. 

Catherine Rowett for byline picture

Former Green MEP professor Catherine Rowett - Credit: copyright ARCHANT 2017

“It would be a win-win situation and would create a really good outcome for every community that had such a thing." 

In comments this week, prof Rowett explained that she began looking into the concept towards the end of her time as an MEP, and that she would ideally like to return to it at some stage.

“It was partly in light of a report I’d had done called Energising the East and that had proposed community energy projects,” she said

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“I wrote to all the Church of England dioceses in the East and I got some responses, and went to see the diocese environmental officer in Chelmsford.”

Proposals for solar panels have sparked controversy in the Norfolk village of Aldeby.

Solar farms are already an increasingly common sight in Norfolk's agricultural landscape - Credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire

Although the arrival of the Covid pandemic had slowed down the project’s progress, prof Rowett said some promising solar initiatives had been started in parts of the region, albeit with relatively few in Norfolk so far.

She added churches could strive to become not just carbon-neutral, but provide energy benefits to the communities they serve too, such as through electric minibuses. 

The idea of installing panels on churches was welcomed this week by the Diocese of Norwich - whose Bishop, Graham Usher, has been appointed by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby as lead bishop for the environment.

Barbara Bryant, a member of the diocese’s environment working group, said: “Solar panels could be appropriate for rural churches in slightly larger settlements, in market towns and urban areas. 

Barbara Bryant, a member of the Diocese of Norwich Environment Working Group.

Barbara Bryant, a member of the Diocese of Norwich Environment Working Group. - Credit: Diocese of Norwich

“There are many things to take into consideration, such as cost, maintenance and preserving the heritage of what are mostly listed buildings.

“However, churches have always been adapted down the centuries and this is the challenge for today’s worshippers to find ways to enable this ongoing change to happen sustainably.

“We are actively supporting our church communities who are seeking to do this in imaginative and creative ways.

Ms Bryant pointed out the Church of England has already drawn up a route map to net zero by 2030 and the vast majority of Norfolk’s rural churches “have a tiny carbon footprint”.

“There are many projects already underway to reduce our carbon footprint of our churches, clergy housing, offices and schools.

Thieves have stolen the lead from the roof of All Saints Church in East Winch. Picture: Ian Burt

Thieves have stolen the lead from the roof of All Saints Church in East Winch. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

“Many of our churches have already signed-up to the 'eco church' scheme, which provides a framework for applying environmental and biodiversity issues across every aspect of our joint commitment to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

“It covers every area of our life as a Christian community, from the management of church buildings and church land, to lifestyle and community and global engagement. It’s at the heart of our Christian faith.”

A tried and tested idea

The idea of churches and other religious buildings playing host to solar panels is not a completely new one.

Gloucester and Salisbury’s cathedrals have had panels loaded on their rooftops since 2016 and 2020, respectively.

Even relatively small churches such as St John’s in Old Trafford, Manchester and St Peter’s in Petersfield, Hampshire, produce tens of thousands of kilowatts of electricity per year from their own solar arrays.

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham Usher. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham Usher - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

Meanwhile in Norfolk, the Rt Rev Graham Usher, the Bishop of Norwich, has recently launched a consultation to consider new ways of utilising some of the county’s less-used churches.

As a former ecologist, and the Anglican church’s lead on the environment, Bishop Usher has been tasked with finding innovative ways to respond to climate change - raising the question of whether solar projects could be included among them.