ZCBlog: the Energiewende

As we write up the research for our third ZCB report on how Britain can decarbonise, it’s interesting to look around at what’s being suggested in other decarbonisation strategies. Germany, for instance, stands out for its ambitious Energiewende (‘energy transition’) that combines a phasing out of nuclear and coal power with a huge increase in renewables to achieve an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. (If you get CAT’s Clean Slate, you’ll have seen the article on Energiewende in our Spring 2013 edition.)

So far this plan has had dramatic results. For instance, in ten years Germany’s renewable electricity jumped from 6% to 25% of its total share, and about 50% of capacity is community owned.

So what lessons does this offer for the UK? Two weeks ago PRASEG, the Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group, held a seminar to discuss just that.

“This is the most amazing, in both senses of the word, challenge that they’re engaged in,” said the seminar’s Chair, Tom Heap, a main presenter on Radio 4’s environmental documentary series Costing the Earth. “Whether you think it’s fantastic or somewhat flawed, it’s of great benefit for us in the UK because it’s like a live, pilot experiment. We can see how they’re getting on, and hopefully learn from the strengths and weaknesses of what they’re doing.”

ZCB’s Energy Modeller Tobi Kellner agrees: “The issues brought up in this debate are absolutely spot-on, and very similar to many of the debates we have in the ZCB energy research team. Germany is currently a few years ahead of the UK on the trajectory towards a future powered by 100% renewable energy, and in many ways their Energiewende is similar to the kind of political push that we’d like to see in this country.

From a socio-political perspective, perhaps the most interesting aspect the speakers touch on is how it happened that in Germany support for this transition spans right across the political spectrum, including German industry and conservative parties. From a technical perspective, it’s great that the speakers don’t leave out the significant challenges involved with a transition from fossil fuels to renewables. This includes the question of how variability can be balanced, and on the changing role of coal, gas and nuclear power stations in the energy system.”

PRASEG has shared recordings of this seminar on their website, and we’ve embedded them below for ease of access. Enjoy!

  • An introduction by Tom Heap (3min)

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  • Rainer Baake, Germany’s State Secretary at the Federal Environment Ministry from 1998 to 2005 and current Director of the think tank Agora Energiewende (20min)

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  • R Andreas Kraemer, Director and CEO of Ecologic Institute in Berlin, Spokesperson of Germany’s ecological research network Ecornet and Coordinator of the British-German Environment Forum (16min)

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  • Dr Alan Whitehead MP, Labour MP for Southampton Test, member of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee and PRASEG Chair (17min)

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  • A Q&A session (1hr)

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A week at Ecobuild shows a strong CAT community

In the face of huge numbers of exhibitors and talks competing for attention at this year’s Ecobuild, the event was a welcome reminder that CAT still offers something unique in the world of sustainable design.

Ecobuild 2013 was a massive event. With over 1,500 exhibitors, nearly 60,000 attendees, and dozens of conferences and seminars, it’s fantastic that so many visitors managed to find their way to the CAT stall. The Internet has been alive with comments about the Ecobuild experience, tweeting about everything from the need for more power sockets to a call for more humanitarian and student organisations.

This latter concern made the Centre for Alternative Technology stand out in a sea of product-oriented, for-profit stalls. Our GSE banners caught many people’s eye, and with building schematics thin on the ground elsewhere quite a few architects stopped to peruse the students’ sketches on the walls.The models were also popular, especially the bird hide!

Students, lecturers and staff generously gave their time to stand at the stall and field all sorts of questions, from the basic – “What is CAT, anyway?” – to the complex – how to become totally self-sufficient in energy, for instance, or how to find out the ratio of materials in WISE’s rammed earth walls.

“I had an interesting conversation with a woman who was really disillusioned with the trendy state of architecture education in general,” recalls Jake, a current Professional Diploma student who worked at CAT’s Ecobuild stall, “most people at other schools won’t approach anything to do with science and maths. Here at CAT you can really talk about physics in a way you can’t at other places.”

Many visitors expressed interest in coming to CAT to study – and Student Support Officer Will, who worked at Ecobuild all three days, talked to a student who just graduated from CAT’s Professional Diploma course this January, and who had actually first heard of our programme at Ecobuild.

Students from all our graduate courses – REBE, Prof Dip, AEES and AEES Distant Learning – volunteered and came to say hello, and enjoyed getting the chance to meet and talk to students on other CAT courses. Those who came to explore Ecobuild tried to attend as many seminars as they could, with generally positive responses. Even the staff got to check out some events – like the final conference on art – and displays – see the photo at the bottom!

Friends of CAT also stopped by to ask about how things have changed at the Centre since their last visit, and to tell their stories of their experience here. With Ecobuild’s focus firmly on the physical – and in some cases, the concrete – the general appreciation of CAT’s message shows its continued ability to inform, enable and inspire.


London can feel worlds away from Machynlleth (driving the Ecobuild van there and back was proof of that!) and it’s not always easy to visit. Luckily CAT is sometimes able to come to you. If you’re in the Birmingham area, why not check out our stall at the National Homebuilding and Renovating Show? Tobi Kellner, renewable energy expert, will be speaking every day of the show at 12.15 on wood as an energy source.


This display of wool insulation caught many people's eye, and CAT students and staff show their appreciation!



ZCBlog: reflections on an Ecobuild seminar

If you attended Ecobuild last week (CAT’s review to follow), you know there were almost too many intriguing conferences and seminars to choose from. We didn’t manage to make it to ‘Is this the end of the road for zero carbon?’ but if anyone else did we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. (Our answer is a definite “Not if we can help it!”)

We did manage to get to the final conference of Ecobuild, though, and it was well worth the wait. In ‘Encouraging sustainability through art,’ psychologist Oliver James, The Idler founder Tom Hodgkinson, and artists Sophie Molins and Clare Patey discussed how art can help us overcome our addition to consumerism and work for a healthier planet. Of course, this fits right in with ZCB’s artist in residence project. In this week’s ZCBlog, we’ll talk about some of their arguments and projects we found most exciting.

Coming to terms with climate change

Host Oliver James got things off to a provocative start by calling Britain a society of “credit-fuelled consumer junkies,” but went on to describe how today’s climate challenge is for all of us to accept the facts, and then to tolerate the distress these facts cause us. He then outlined three psychological coping mechanisms, the first of which is denial: climate change isn’t happening, or if it is humans aren’t causing it. The second is maladaptive response, a category most of us fall into: to accept climate change but blunt the feelings of fear, grief, anger, panic and so on with a range of arguments. These include:

  • We’ll fix it through technology, like geoengineering
  • Live in the present, and ignore the scary future
  • Diversionary tactics, i.e. small behavioural changes (“if I recycle then I’m doing my bit”)
  • Blame shifting (“the US and China are the real culprits”)
  • Indifference
  • Unrealistic optimism

The third response, and the only one that leads to effective action, is adaptive coping: to accept climate change, go through the process of mourning, and transition to practical problem solving. The best way to encourage others to cope adaptively, James concludes, is to walk them through their fears gently, and ease them into considering new values.

Stop climate change by doing nothing

One of these new values might be idleness. Tom Hodgkinson spoke about how doing nothing – and thus travelling less, buying less, using less technology, etc. – can mean fewer carbon emissions. At the same time, he argued, we get our good ideas and do our creative thinking when we are at rest.  Setting aside time for this could be crucial to planning for sustainability.

He also offered the idea of permaculture as a model of the ideal lifestyle. Permaculture is an intelligent system that requires less input from the humans running it: minimum effort for maximum output. As we try to reduce energy use, we might turn to ecological solutions like permaculture to guide our thinking.

Is art the answer?

As we craft solutions to carbon emission reduction, should we turn to art to convert people to a particular way ofthinking? Sophie Molins is Art Co-ordinator at Artists Project Earth (APE), a non-profit that uses popular music to raise funds for climate change and social justice causes. Musicians in other countries make remixes of popular songs by artists as diverse as Eminem and Mumford & Sons, and profits from these tracks have funded over 330 projects to date.

While APE tries to raise awareness of our moral and spiritual obligations to stop climate change, Clare Patey’s site-specific work emphasises social engagement and bringing people together – and she is adamant that art should not be didactic. She helped design the Carbon Ration Book,

and organises Feast on the Bridge in London every year to get people involved in the process of food production, consumption and disposal. Another piece she created laid out all the food an average British person would eat in their lifetime, from the thousands of milk bottles drunk to the sheep eaten. Rather than presenting a finish product for people to view, Patey shows the huge transformative power of including people in the creative process.

Overall this conference touched on a whole host of issues about how we limit our emissions and respond to a changing climate. Should we create art, or seek therapy – or just sit at home and play cards? Perhaps we can do all three. Above all, this last conference at Ecobuild was an inspiring glimpse into the way creativity can turn even the of biggest challenges into an opportunity.


For your Zero Carbon news, check out the Spring 2013 ZCB Newsletter!

Podcast: social perceptions of wind power

On this week’s podcast we learn about the social side of wind power, and particularly the strength of local opposition and NIMBYism (‘not in my backyard’), from a graduate of CAT’s MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies course. Ruth Chapman now works in wind power development for renewable energy company Dulas, but for her MSc thesis she investigated social responses in Wales to wind turbines based on attachment to place, a sense of fairness, and other values. She also uses excerpts from interviews to illustrate how her research reveals the complex challenges and tensions that will determine whether we meet governmental renewable energy targets, and whether we go on to achieve a zero carbon future.


Previous podcasts

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Discovering Joanna Macy: the Work that Reconnects


On the 6th of April, facilitators Jenny Smith and Jenni Horsfall from the Shift Bristol Practical Sustainability training are running a one day workshop in Joanna Macy‘s work, the Work that Reconnects, at the Centre for Alternative Technology. Below, Jenny explains Joanna Macy’s ideas, and discusses how it has helped activists the world over.

I discovered Joanna Macy through her book ‘World as Self, World as Lover.’ The title alone impacted me viscerally and the subsequent experiences of reading it and later training with her profoundly influenced my understanding of how life affects many of us in this industrial growth society.

Joanna Macy is an American elder in her eighties who has been involved in anti-nuclear protesting for five decades, among other things. In the seventies she recognised that many environmental activists were burning out through not having the means and support to process the strong emotions of rage, overwhelm and despair that they were regularly feeling.

In response to this she devised an experiential process called The Work that Reconnects which has supported thousands of environmental and social activists through a four stage spiral to come together to both share their experiences and support each other in the journey towards a more life sustaining existence.

The spiral starts with gratitude for what we love about life, a revolutionary act in itself given the culture of not having or being enough that most of us have grown up in. It then moves to a space of honouring pain for the world which again is a rare and counter cultural experience in our world of stiff upper lip and business as usual. In the turning point from honouring pain to the third stage of ‘seeing with new eyes’ the depths of despair or fires of fury are clearly re-framed as evidence of innate connection with all of life. Drawing from the science of Systems Theory, Mahayana Buddhism and Deep Ecology Joanna illustrates that our experience of pain for the world springs from our inter-connectedness with all beings, from which also arises our powers to act on their behalf.The final stage is integration and forward visioning of how to take this work back out into life once the workshop is over.

My personal experience of activism has been in the field of working with marginalised groups of people in areas of addiction, street sex work and self harm and other areas of mental health. I understand the risks of burnout when the odds are stacked against what you are working for and when the majority of the world do not seem aware or particularly interested in what seems blatantly clear to you. The Work that Reconnects is essential inner work for activists, because without attending to our inner experiences both emotionally and spiritually it is very hard to be of any significant affect in the long term. The one day course on 6th April is both an introduction for anyone new to the work or a refresher for anyone already familiar.

Find out more about the workshop here, or contact Jenny directly at surrendertopeace@hotmail.com


Cwrdd yn y Canol/Meet in the Middle


[Scroll down for English]

Lleoliad cynadledda cynaliadwy yng nghalon Canolbarth Cymru

Mae WISE yn ganolfan sydd wedi ennill gwobrau lawer, ac mae yma gyfleusterau modern, trawiadol, a chynaliadwy ar gyfer cynnal cynadleddau, cyfarfodydd, sesiynau hyfforddi a digwyddiadau unigol. Mae’r lleoliad yn nyffryn hardd Dulas yng nghanolbarth Cymru ac yn hawdd cyrraedd ato ar hyd y ffordd fawr ynghyd â gwasanaethau trên rheolaidd i Fachynlleth gerllaw.

Mae WISE yn cynnig profiad cynadledda unigryw, lleoliad gyda theatr ddarlithio o 200 sedd wedi’i wneud o ddaear gywasgedig. Mae nifer o stafelloedd llai ar gyfer grwpiau o wahanol faint a digwyddiadau llai. Mae WISE hefyd yn cynnig llety en suite ar gyfer hyd at 48 o bobl a gwasanaeth arlwyo hyd at 200 o bobl.

Mae WISE wedi’i leoli ar safle canolfan eco fwya blaenllaw Ewrop, sef y Ganolfan Dechnoleg Amgen sy’n defnyddio pŵer trydan adnewyddol. Mae WISE yn rhoi naws gwahanol i ddigwyddiadau.Rydyn ni ar hyn o bryd yn cynnig gostyngiad o 20% ar bob archeb tan ddiwedd Ebrill. Os gwelwch yn dda, a wnewch chi gyfeirio at yr hysbyseb hwn wrth ymateb?The WISE building

Cysylltwch â Sarah ar 01654  704973 neu e-bostiwch venue.hire@cat.org.uk

Meet in the Middle
Sustainable conference venue in the heart of Mid- Wales

WISE is an award winning venue, with impressive, modern and sustainable facilities for successful conferences, meetings, training sessions and one-off events. Nestled in the stunning Dulas valley in mid-Wales and easily accessible by road, with regular rail services to nearby Machynlleth, WISE offers a unique conference experience. The venue features a 200 seat rammed earth lecture theatre and a number of smaller rooms that can cater for different size groups and smaller events. WISE also offers en suite accommodation  for up to 48 delegates  and catering facilities for up to  200  delegates.

Situtated at the site of Europe’s leading eco centre, the Centre for Alternative Technology and powered by renewable electricity,  WISE inspires events with a difference.

We are now offering a 20% discount on all bookings until the end of April. Please mention this email when responding.

Please contact Sarah on 01654  704973 or email venue.hire@cat.org.uk

Sail away in a traditional Welsh coracle

A new 2 day course at CAT from the 6th-7th of April will enable participants to build their very own coracle, the course covers everything from weaving the willow structure to applying the outer waterproof layer and exploring the role of the coracle in Welsh society.  Ideal for anyone who wants to learn how to make a coracle and does not require previous knowledge of working with willow.
Since pre Roman times, the Coracle has been used by humans for fishing and transporting humans and goods. Coracles can be found throughout the world, from the India, Vietnam and Tibet, to Norway, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, where they can be seen in use in three west Wales river, The Teifi, The Towy and The Taf.

An important aspect to the Welsh Coracle is that it can be carried on by just one person, hence the Welsh saying . ‘Llwyth dyn ei gorwgl’ — the load of a man is his coracle.

In Wales there are several different types of coracle, tailored to the river condition and its intended use. Oval in shape, the structure is made of a framework of split and interwoven willow rods, tied with willow bark. The outer layer was originally an animal skin such as horse hide, with a thin layer of tar to make it fully water proof – today replaced by tarred calico or canvas or simply fibreglass.

Each coracle is unique in design, The Teifi coracle, for instance, is flat bottomed, as it is designed to negotiate shallow rapids, common on the river in the summer, while the Carmarthen coracle is rounder and deeper, because it is used in tidal waters on the Tywi, where there are no rapids. Teifi coracles use no nails, relying on the interweaving of the lats for structural coherence, whilst the Carmarthen ones use copper nails and no interweaving.

Coracles are effective fishing vehicles as they hardly disturb the water or the fish and can easily be manoeuvred with one arm whilst the other tends the fishing net. The coracle is propelled by means of a broad-bladed paddle used towards the front of the coracle,pulling the boat forward, with the paddler facing in the direction of travel.

For press enquiries and photos please contact kim.bryan@cat.org.uk/ 01654 705 957

For further information on the coracle making course at CAT please contact courses@cat.org.uk 01654 704 952 or look at our webpage

Podcast: what policies do we need to encourage eco-renovation?

Energy use has been in the news recently, from Ofgem’s warning that Britain will come “dangerously” close to power shortages within two years, to the public outrage in response to Centrica reported that British Gas profits increased 11% after a hike in prices a few months ago.

Following on from our most recent sustainable architecture post, this week’s podcast describes current refurbishment policies in the UK, in particular the Green Deal. Tina Fawcett, Senior Researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, explains why we need policy if we’re going to refurbish Britain’s buildings – and what new policies might be effective and feasible.


Previous podcasts

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Sustainable Architecture Blog: Building a solution to rising energy bills

Last week the chief executive of Ofgem warned that Britain will come “dangerously” close to power shortages within two years. Swift action is needed to protect our communities against fuel poverty and improve energy security. Sustainable buildings hold the key.

Alistair Buchanan, chief executive of Ofgem, believes that reforms to the UK’s electricity supply will not be quick enough to replace power plants that are on the way out. But what if Britain simply reduced the energy demand of our homes?

Sustainable architects and builders are best placed to do this. Cost-effective energy efficiency measures could reduce the energy demand of Britain’s buildings, therefore lowering the UK’s baseload electricity. Sustainable retrofitting and new builds are one of the quickest ways to achieve this.

Natural building materials that are affordable and sustainable such as local timber should be used in all new builds, whilst other materials can be used to eco-renovate homes.

Researchers and architecture students studying at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) have shown that hemp is a sustainable alternative to synthetic insulation. Hemp shiv render is proven to not suffer from moisture ingress so would be perfect as a natural insulator. There is no reason why this insulation could not be used on a wide scale.

Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) is a rapid decarbonisation scenario from CAT that demonstrates how the UK can power down energy demand by retrofitting the housing stock.

We are in a transitional period. Sustainable new builds will become increasingly cheaper as energy efficient social housing becomes the standard. All we need now is widespread retrofit policies that make eco-renovation affordable, without adding debts to properties, and a universal approach to sustainability that prioritises the use of natural materials.

This all adds up to an obvious solution for rising energy bills. Why build more power plants if we can easily cut demand?

CAT has 40 years of experience in sustainable building and is recognised as a leader in research and training for low-impact construction. The MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies offers postgraduate study with an holistic approach to sustainability and energy use in design, architecture and building.