CAT pioneers sustainable transport options with new electric vehicle charging points


Visitors to the Centre for Alternative Technology will have a new sustainable transport option from this week. Anyone driving an electric vehicle will be able to refuel free of charge using a mix of renewable electricity generated on site and bought through the grid. The two electric vehicle charging points are part of a network of public charge points around the UK operated by Zero Carbon World.

The Centre for Alternative Technology tries to encourage visitors to travel to the site sustainably. People who travel to the site by train get in for half price and there is also a discount for cyclists. These new electric charge points will be available free of charge for students, conference visitors and the general public.

CAT Engineer, Jaise Kuriakose, said “We can’t continue to burn polluting fossil fuels to transport ourselves around. Electric vehicles can be run using renewable electricity and are an important part of our vision for a Zero Carbon Britain. It is fantastic to be able to offer visitors to CAT this new service. This cutting edge technology means there is one more way for people to travel to CAT sustainably and it puts this part of Mid Wales on the electric vehicle map for the first time.”

The transport sector currently accounts for almost a third of UK greenhouse gas emissions; cars are the biggest source of these emissions. Electric vehicles produce about half the carbon dioxide per mile compared to petrol or diesel vehicles under the current grid mix. This could decrease to near zero as renewable sources replace coal and gas in the electricity mix. At CAT 100% of the electricity comes from renewable sources either generated on site by the hydro turbines, windmills and the large array of solar panels or bought from green electricity supplier Good Energy.


AT@40: Reflections on the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Alternative Technology movement


Paul Allen, CAT’s External Relations Director, writes about a recent gathering in London celebrating forty years of the alternative technology movement.

Over the weekend I took the train down to the Architecture Association in London’s Bedford Square to join ‘AT@40 – the past and future of alternative technology.‘ I’ve been inspired and motivated by alternative technology since my late teens, so it was a real pleasure to explore 40 years of radical technologies with the people who made it all happen. Today, after a couple of decades of big wind and a massive increase in the scale and variety of renewable technologies as well as a wide array of incentives, it’s important that we pause and remember just how radical and brave it was to re-think the role of science and technology back in the early 1970s.

The rise of alternative technology has been a much-underestimated shift in humanity’s socio technical evolution. Several speakers (such as author David Dickson) cited the 1968 Paris up-risings as a key tipping point. Before that shift, science and technology were predominantly associated with progress, improvements in standards of living and things getting better. Scientists – even nuclear scientists – were heroes. However, after the uprisings, real questions were being asked about the limits to material growth, damage to nature and eventual depletion of resources.

However, the students leading the uprisings were from the arts, humanities, and social sciences – so in the wake of the disturbances there was pressure on the technologists to contribute to the dialogue. This exploration led to many new movements broadly centered around re-thinking the road which science is taking us on, eventually leading to a key conference at the Architecture Association in 1972. It was at this conference that Peter Harper coined the phrase ‘Alternative Technology’ to describe the movement’s re-evaluation of the role of technology.

Alternative Technology focuses on the benefit to humans as well as to economies. It’s not just solar and wind power, but rather the conceptual framework which can encompass it, including shifts in values which can open up understanding and control to citizens and communities, challenge market control, work towards global equity and challenge gender inequalities and prejudices.

The day included a wide range of presentations from key innovators, including – of course – marvellous tales of heroic invention from Peter Frankel’s confessions of a mad innovator to Derek Taylor’s Rational Technology Unity. We heard tales of African windpumps, Mongolian nomadic windturbines, verical axis windpower, horizontal axis windpower, v type and h type designs, Stirling engines, Darious blades design right down to the rise of power electronics and load controllers. It was a magnificent display of human ingenuity and accompanied by an awe-inspiring array of pioneering historic images.

However, it wasn’t all techno-talk. Both Peter Harper and Godfrey Boyle highlighted the vital value of self-scrutiny and rigor. Like many concepts, its willing supporters gave it magical powers that allowed it to offer all sorts of unlikely and unrealistic benefits, but by a rigorous approach of ‘doing the numbers’ Alternative Technology managed to self-audit and so, to an extent, limit any fantasy factory, whilst also taking on a chameleon-like ability to evolve and develop.

Looking back at the last 40 years offered us all an incredibly useful chance to take the long-view over time and see what has and hasn’t changed since 1972. From Godfrey’s analysis the thing that jumped out is the trebling of population since 1972 and the fact it looks set to rise to nine billion; to compound this, if all 9 billion aspire to join a new middle class the exponential ecological impact will be off the scale.

This led to a wide recognition from many of the day’s speakers that the new urgency of the climate crisis has awoken us from complacency of the 80s and 90s. We don’t have long to act, and there is much to be gained from narrowing down a wide range of aspirations to using carbon reduction as the key metric for directing the best path forwards, and it is a great match with many other value shifts.

Ex-CAT director Pete Raine helped us all see how far we have come in 40 years, by pointed out that Alternative Technology has wormed its way into the cultural consciousness and become normalised. We have to keep in mind that by moving into the mainstream, we play by mainstream rules and embrace mainstream values.

My question to the panel was one of gender balance. I was pleased to see the early Cliff Harper pen drawings which had inspired my youth – showing rows of terraced houses with shared spaces for growing food, baking bread and even a community sauna. But I was concerned that we were all looking proudly at another of his inspiring pen drawings showing an engineering workshop run by women, but not openly questioning the fact that this event had attracted 92% males and there were no women at all as speakers – surely a movement seeking to democratise technology must seek to achieve gender balance? However no one seemed to have any clear explanation for me!

The array of speakers ended with some younger new radical voices. Trystan Lee helped us explore how the move from a wide range of aspirations to one (carbon) metric can still benefit from linking with the ‘open source’ movement, which is in many ways a natural descendent of AT. His example was an open source energy monitor that offers us a tool to help communities see their energy differently. Over the last 3 years a great many people have been these building energy monitors around the world, contributing, whilst also growing and developing the design. I could already see the Cliff Harper drawing – a village workshop of 3-d printers manufacturing hi-tech electronics for community energy control.

The day left me feeling inspired by what I had heard, the pioneering of new attitudes and approaches to technology is a really interesting narrative, and deserves further exploration and archiving well before all the old slides and vhs tapes get lost and it all moves from living memory. I felt we quickly need to establish and on-line digital sanctuary where people can up-load important historical documents, images and film. This story is every bit as intriguing as the rise of the canals, or the coming of the motorways; telling the tale may well help to engage and inspire more young mind of both genders to take up the baton.

Things will change whether we are pro-active or not. Renewable energy will grow – but we need the seize the opportunity to gain community control and localise the benefits.

First they ignore you, then they fight you, then you win. – Ghandi


Inspiring bird hide built by Centre for Alternative Technology students is recognised in prestigious architecture awards


A bird hide designed and built by Professional Diploma in Architecture students at the Centre for Alternative Technology was shortlisted for the Architect’s Journal Small Project Awards earlier this year.

Situated in Coed Gwern, CAT’s woodland, the bird hide provides protection for bird watchers without detaching them from their surroundings. While some bird hides can be curiously bunker-like, the structure’s spaced wooden beams create an airy atmosphere, blending into the Welsh forest.

Constructed from two timber fans interlocking with two vertical walls, the hide is also unique in its adaptability. While it currently looks out on a peaceful valley in mid-Wales, the spacing of the windows and the visual permeability of the whole structure enable it to be translated into other contexts.

Intended to be a temporary structure for summer bird watching, the building’s adaptability is but one part of its impressive environmental credentials. A stunning example of architecture working harmoniously with nature, the hide not only fosters a closer connection to the surrounds than a more traditional wildlife watching hide, but reflects a strong emphasis on sustainable practice.

“The size of the structure was determined by the standard lengths of timber we used,” says designer Bryn Hallett, “reducing the amount of cutting, so not producing much waste.” Built over a mere five days from organically grown, untreated Welsh timber, the use of wood products make the structure carbon-sequestering. The construction process was similarly environmentally friendly – using no mains electricity but only battery and hand tools, and just one car, workers walked to the site and used a compost toilet.

At a cost of £1500, the bird hide was one of the least expensive structures shortlisted in the Architect’s Journal Small Projects award. An annual competition for buildings costing less than £250,000, this year’s awards attracted a wide range of impressive submissions. “When we got shortlisted were quite surprised,” says Bryn, “there were lots of really interesting projects. Presenting to the jury was a great experience – it was fantastic to be considered as an equal alongside all the practicing architects.”

The bird hide has also been highly popular on the Architect’s Journal website where it is currently one of the ‘most viewed’ projects in the Architect’s Journal Buildings Library.