Ten years… it’s a long time in education

Politicians meeting for the World Summit in Rio this week are struggling to find many achievements since their last big environmental summit in Johannesburg ten years ago. But for the last ten years, teacher Colin Workman has been bringing students from Whitchurch High school in Cardiff to the Centre for Alternative Technology and he believes attitudes amongst his pupils are starting to change.


“In the years that we have been coming here it is clear that the groups now have a better understanding than perhaps those pupils 10 years ago did about sustainability issues, but nevertheless they always learn something new.” Said Colin Workman.


Since 2002 the School has consistently brought around 200 pupils each year to the centre, meaning over 2000 pupils have now benefited from the trips. The pupils get a tour of the centre with experts from CAT, where they get to see renewable technology and innovative building techniques first hand.

“The centre always seems to move on; there’s always something new for them to look at and to learn about. The last couple of years they’ve been able to look at the WISE building and the way in which that has been built to minimise impact on resources… I certainly think it gives them a better awareness of what’s going on and that that can only be a good thing.” Mr Workman continued.


Speaking about what the benefit of coming to the Centre for Alternative Technology is to their pupils he said:


“They see the technology working in situ. It makes it more real than classroom learning.

“It is part of a basket of activities which we base this trip around that are all to do with environment and sustainability, but this is the most focused part so this is a key part of the learning journey.


“They can have some fun but they do learn important lessons about environment and sustainability.”


Ann MacGarry, Education Officer at the Centre for Alternative Technology said: “We really enjoy doing tours for the Whitchurch pupils. They are so interested, lively and engaged. I’m really impressed by the teachers as it is such a challenge these days to organise a trip like this but so valuable for the pupils.”


Read more about organising school visits to CAT by clicking here



Built environment course open days fast approaching

You want to find a masters course that qualifies you for a profession in the design of buildings and spaces… but you want to find one that doesn’t just tack sustainability on as an optional extra; you want sustainability principles to be at the heart of the programme. Sounds like you need to come to the open day for our masters programme MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies (AEES) on the 14-15th July.


The MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies (AEES) course provides a holistic approach to sustainable design, architecture and building. Taught at the Centre for Alternative Technology in mid Wales, the course is based in the award winning Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (WISE). Various teaching methods draw on the expert knowledge of our tutors, and on the Centre for Alternative Technology’s 35 years of experience in teaching sustainability.


To find out more about the open days, click here.


To find out more about the course, or to read a student blog from one of the students currently on the course, click here.


If your thing in more Renewable Energy than Environmental Architecture, there is still just about time to book into the open day for our Renewable Energy and the Built Environment programme, which is this Friday 22nd June.


Gardening blog: exploring the forest garden for useful things

Just now, we have what we call “good growing weather” ie lots of sun and lots of rain. The CAT gardens are going wild. The forest garden is really coming into its own now and is looking more bountiful every day. Many of the fruit bushes are starting to bear in serious quantities – it’s looking like we’ll have a great harvest of tayberries. The tayberry is a cross between a blackberry and a raspberry. It looks like you’d expect, with vigourous stems which bear dark red, long fruits. Ours is climbing one of the arches, and has made its way into the Bramley apple tree too.


The garden is filling out nicely, and i’ve noticed there’s been less weeding to do as ther ground covers form thicker weed-excluding mats. I’ve put a few peas and beans in to climb up strings into the apple tree (along with the tayberry). Talking of string, the “String Plant” is establishing nicely and it won’t be long before I’ll be harvesting CAT-forest-garden string for use as garden twine.


Forest gardening tends to divide gardeners into advocates and sceptics. I’m trying my best to have an unbiased approach – but i have to admit that i really, really want it to work.


We have a good look at forest gardening on our course “Sustainable Gardening – the whys and hows” – forest gardening sceptics welcome, as well as enthusiasts.

Chloe is a tutor on the CAT Gardening for a Sustainable Future course in Late July


Where’s the impact of a reusuable bottle?


In this series, we’ve been investigating the environmental and social impacts of various consumer products. Inspired by CAT Education resource Where’s the Impact? we’ve been attempting to unpick the tangled web of relations responsible for what buy.

We’ve so far investigated an Easter egg, a book, a cotton t-shirt and pads and tampons. Last time, we looked at the impact of a home-baked cake, concluding that baking a cake yourself was likely to be more ethical than buying a store bought one, as it’d be possible to avoid un-fairly traded sugar, mono-crop wheat, or products from intensive animal farming.

This week, we’re going to delve into the world of reusable bottles. Most of us are aware of the impact that disposable plastic water bottles have on the environment – and reusing the same bottle, rather than continually buying more bottled water, is a pretty good solution. However, when that bottle’s made from aluminium, with a plastic lid, there are still ethical issues to consider.

As ever, we welcome your comments – help us tell the story by posting below, or make suggestions as to what we could cover in the future.

We looked at aluminium production in an earlier post examining the impact of an Easter egg, highlighting in particular the long distances frequently traveled by the raw material – bauxite ore – before processing. Freighting hefty resources around the world takes a considerable carbon toll, and is symptomatic of the globalised way we’ve become accustomed to producing goods.

In this post, however, I want to focus on a different aspect of aluminium production. As well as being sourced a long way away from the site it’s processed, aluminium affects areas of high biodiversity, as bauxite mines can often be found in these unique habitats.

One such area of high biodiversity is the Amazon rainforest, currently affected by a range of different damaging processes. In the case of aluminium, it’s open cast mining. Open cast mining is not at all euphemistic – it’s an open pit, a giant, gaping, open pit. Kendra Pierre-Louis, in her book Greenwashed, describes the process: “the terrain is artfully moulded, albeit by a deranged landscape architect seeking to evoke a Mad Max-style dystopia.”

Bauxite mines of this persuasion tend to spread indefinitely, until the dirt expelled from the pit becomes problematic. Meanwhile, processing aluminium requires huge amounts of electricity, which Aloca plan to source in Brazil by flooding 150 square miles to create a huge hydroelectric dam, displacing 20,00 people in the process, and shrinking one of the planet’s most precious natural resources.

Even if you’re buying a reusable aluminium bottle to reduce your reliance on disposable plastic bottles, it’s likely you’ll still be buying a bottle with plastic content in the lid. Plastic’s lack of environmental credentials lies partly in its manufacture, which is reliant on various chemicals dangerous to human health, and partly in its longevity.

Strangely for a substance so associated with disposability and impermanence, plastic sticks around for a long, long time. It loiters in landfills, clogs waterways, and once entering the ocean, migrates to join ranks with other bits of plastic in one of five plastic ‘islands’ in the ocean, each the size of Texas. It degrades, and gets eaten, pervading almost every ecosystem on Earth. But it doesn’t break down.

What then, do we do with it? Recycling plastic can be an energy-intense process. Recycling it more imaginatively – I’m thinking knitting bags from plastic bags, bin-liner wearable art – is also an option, though it’s probably possible to reach saturation point with plastic-based recycled art fairly quickly. Sadly, plastic products are emblematic of our disposable consumer culture; it’s a great resource, but perhaps best for where necessity demands it, like medical supplies, rather than the various less-than-vital ends we’ve channeled it into.

Don’t get me wrong: reusable bottles are good. Reusable things in general are good, as are mendable things, fixable things, things built without built-in obsolescence or the capacity to self-destruct. However, there’s an interesting irony in the case of an aluminium reusable water bottle – they’re part of a range of products aimed at making our lives greener, encouraging us to believe that we can shop ourselves out of ecological crisis.

Aluminium, unlike plastic, can be recycled with relative ease. Recycling aluminium saves up to 95% of the amount of energy needed to transform bauxite ore into aluminium, and with over 4 million cans produced annually in the UK alone, it’s fair to say that we’ve got enough of the stuff in circulation to fulfill our aluminium needs. However, aluminium bottles are made from virgin aluminium. They’re recyclable, which is better than not being recyclable, but the process of making them is still reliant on open-caste mining, destroying areas of high biodiversity, and robbing indigenous peoples of their land.

If we bought one and thus fulfilled our water-vessel needs, that’d be fine and dandy – but consumer culture doesn’t work that way. Despite reusable bottles being sold to us as eco-options, our consumption of bottled water hasn’t significantly decreased, if at all. And they’re still peddled as part of an acquisitive culture which needs us to buy more, and more (and perhaps more).

Fundamentally, despite claims of ‘greenness’, all products have an impact. The question remains as to which impacts are worth it, and which aren’t.


Photostory: learning about the incredible properties of lime


Students studying for their MSc in Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies learned about the incredible properties of lime as a building material during a recent practical at CAT.

The hands-on approach is an important aspect of learning at the Graduate School of the Environment, which has lots of facilities for teaching about renewable energy and sustainable building methods onsite, including a lime kiln.

Lime has been used for thousands of years to finish buildings, though was replaced by cement in the 19th Century. There’s recently been a resurgence of interest in lime, however, as sustainable building materials have become more popular.

At CAT, we experiment with different environmentally sound building methods. If you’re interested in pursuing graduate study in sustainability, come along to one of our upcoming open days to find out what studying at CAT is like!

Roger teaches CAT staff about salad picking


Parsley, Coriander tops, Apple Mint, Chives, Courgette flowers, Nasturtium leaves and flowers, Beetroot thinnings, Kale, Land cress, Sorrel, Brassica tops… Yesterday Roger the CAT gardener gave a tour to some of the things on offer in the CAT garden for lunchtime salads. We never need to go near a lettuce again!


A chance to find out more about our sustainable postgraduate courses…


On June 22nd, we’ll be running another of our popular open days offering prospective students the chance to find out more about our masters course in renewable energy and the built environment.

The course, which is taught with an unique combination of academic study and practical experimentation, explores the theory and practices of renewable energy technologies with special reference to the built environment. It’s aimed at those interested in becoming more knowledgeable about the benefits and drawbacks of the major renewable energy technologies, including biomass, solar photovoltaics, wind power, solar thermal and hydro electricity.

Leanda, a student who has worked in the construction industry in Bristol for the past seven years, has been writing about the modules and her experiences at the Graduate School of the Environment on her blog. She says “one of my favourite things about this course is the people on it. You get to know them so much better than you would on a standard university course. The course is pretty intense; you spend a lot of time time with each other. However, I’m lucky to be surrounded by such great people. No-one else at home would engage in conversations with me about the possibility of harnessing power in a giant hampster wheel. Big ideas have to start somewhere!”

The open day will give anyone interested in joining the course the opportunity to meet students and lecturers and explore the unique study environment that is CAT. Visitors will be given an introduction to the course, an update on the jobs market and the experiences of past students, a site tour of CAT with all its fascinating displays of renewable energy systems and the chance to sit in on lectures.

For more information, head to gse.cat.org.uk/opendays, where the schedule for the day will shortly be available. Email msc.rebe@cat.org.uk if you’d like to book a place.

Student story: Grant on studying on the REBE course and installing an 11kW wind turbine


Grant has been establishing a business in Cornwall and came to CAT to study on the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment MSc course to help him incorporate renewable energy and efficient building techniques in the project. Here he briefly summarises the installation of a wind turbine as part of the project, and talks of his experiences on the REBE course at CAT. He wrote an in-depth feasibility and appraisal report on this installation for his Wind Power module work.

For more information on our masters courses, go to www.gse.cat.org.uk. The next open day for REBE will be on the 22nd of June – click here for more info.

Candor is an idyllic 5 acres in Cornwall where the conversion of three traditional cob barns will create a facility for a yoga and meditation residential retreat. A condition of the planning application approved in 2007 involved a requirement to install a number of renewable technologies designed to ensure that the site was a net producer of renewable energy.

I had always had an interest in CAT and this seemed like the ideal opportunity to become involved with CAT, join the REBE course and learn both the theory and practical aspects of renewable technologies to support the development at Candor.

Being on the REBE course has enhanced my knowledge of the technologies and also increased my enthusiasm for the subject due to the unique nature of the course: there are eight attendances lasting 5 days each of complete immersion at CAT; learning, eating, drinking and sleeping renewables in the exemplary WISE building.

The latest addition to the Candor development is an 11kW Gaia wind turbine. This entailed 6 months hard slog from planning application to commissioning. Many of the learning experiences on the REBE course helped me along the way. The installation was well worth the effort and due to pre-emptory and “seat of the pants” project planning (with the cable and foundation already in place!) and some terse words with the local planning department we received our planning consent at 10:30 a.m. on Wed 28th March. The turbine was erected and commissioned just 55 hours later at 5:00pm on Friday 30th March. By Saturday 31st March – a mere 24 hours later – it had already produced 180kWh and our FIT application was in and registered to meet the 2011/12 FIT deadline!

We look forward to 20+ years of renewable energy which will power the site with electricity and space heating via the ground source heat pump. We expect an output of between 30-40MWh per year (equivalent on average to the consumption of about 10-12 houses) and with a capital cost of just on £90k, a simple financial payback period of 10-12 years will be achieved.

Photostory: building with straw bales


This week at CAT, participants on our popular course building with straw bales have been learning this fast, cheap, effective and highly sustainable building method.

While most building and insulating materials have a high level of embodied energy, straw bales provide a great alternative with the lowest embodied energy of any building method – except for rammed earth.

Furthermore, using straw bales rather than more traditional building materials doesn’t mean any compromise, as straw bales provide great insulation.

Straw bale houses are also relatively easy to construct, and fast.


New book from CAT provides a manifesto for the community energy revolution


On June 7th the Centre for Alternative Technology publishes what Transition movement founder Rob Hopkins has described as a ‘manifesto’ for a revolution in home and community energy. The Home Energy Handbook will increase community participation in energy projects, deepen social resilience and help to re-direct the profits of energy production back to the households and communities that generate, save and use it.

Based on progressive social values and tried-and-tested environmentally responsible technologies The Home Energy Handbook is the first practical book to cover all the key areas of home and community energy in one volume; from mapping out the great energy challenges of the 21st Century, through calculating and cutting your carbon emissions, to implementing practical energy projects in your home and community.

Rob Hopkins has described The Home Energy Handbook as “a hugely valuable resource for individuals, households, communities and local and national decision makers”.

“No other book offers such a complete and dedicated guide to all the major energy saving and renewable energy generation technologies, whilst showing how these technologies can be used to create social change,” says Allan Shepherd, co-author and publisher. “It is a powerful tool for anyone who wants to regain control of their energy future.

The Home Energy Handbook features ten inspiring case studies that show how community focused energy projects enhance living standards, cut carbon emissions and create community cohesion and resilience. Some also show how money earned from electricity generation can be used to support community services, cut fuel poverty and create employment opportunities.

Case studies include a self-build housing scheme in Bristol, a renewable energy scheme in the Scottish islands and a community woodland project in rural Lincolnshire. Technologies covered include: solar PV and thermal, insulation, energy efficiency, biomass wood fuel, heat pumps, ventilation, passive solar, combined heat and power, wind- and hydro power.

Please contact annika.faircloth@cat.org.uk for review copies, pdfs, interviews, extracts or any media enquiries related to the book. 01654 705980
Contact rosie.strickland@cat.org.uk for general media enquiries about CAT. 01654 705 952

Editor’s Notes

The Home Energy Handbook: A guide to saving and generating energy in your home and community

Allan Shepherd, Paul Allen, Peter Harper, Nicky Ison, Jarra Hicks

ISBN 9781902175713, 224pp, 189×246 mm, full colour, fully illustrated, £19.95

• The Authors: Allan Shepherd has written over 15 books, including The Organic Garden (a Daily Telegraph ‘Book of the year’) and 52 Weeks to Change Your World. Peter Harper is Head of CAT’s Research and Innovation department and co-author of Zero Carbon Britain 2030. Paul Allen is Director of CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain project and sits on the Science Advisory Council for Wales. Nicky Ison and Jarra Hicks are community renewable energy specialists.

• Endorsement: “The Home Energy Handbook helps communities and householders take control of their energy destiny with its fresh attitude, positive outlook and creative mix of practical information and inspiring case studies. Innovative and life-changing.” – Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion.

• Endorsement: “The Home Energy Handbook is a hugely valuable resource for individuals, households, communities and local and national decision makers. There is a revolution afoot in terms of how we imagine energy generation. This is its manifesto.” – Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition movement.

• The Home Energy Handbook has been published with the support of the Carnegie Foundation and printed with support from Good Energy. For information about Good Energy contact sophie.bailey@goodenergy.co.uk.

• The Centre for Alternative Technology is a leading environmental education centre based in mid-Wales striving to reach a realistic, achievable sustainable future through the dissemination of knowledge and skills for sustainability across all levels and disciplines. CAT is home to the Graduate School for the Environment, the Zero Carbon Britain project and the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education. Contact rosie.strickland@cat.org.uk for general media enquiries about CAT.

CAT Publications publishes a range of renewable energy, environmental building and ecological books.