PODCAST: Turning the weather into cash

Could the UK provide all it’s energy needs from renewable sources? Can we really create thousonds of green jobs? In this podcast we explore how much energy we could actually make from the wind, sun and rain and whether this could help pull the UK out of a recession. Can we turn the weather into cash?


From the green valleys to the White House

The small nation of Wales will be presenting some huge ideas at this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC, later this month. Experts will discuss the future, including the buildings we could live in, the food we might eat and the way we could use energy in a world without fossil fuels.

The Convergence on Zero event (from 25-26 June) will present leading thinkers from climate science, energy, politics and technology. The event is free, and open to anyone interested in the big questions about the 21st  century – climate change, oil depletion and the economic crisis.


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Is Wales beating the US at the climate change game?

The year started with high hopes for dynamic US action on climate and energy issues, and I have watched tentatively on my side of the Atlantic here in Wales. The US needs hard-hitting climate policy on a domestic scale to make it a leader on the international stage at the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen in December.

Unfortunately, proposals on the table don’t consider the increasingly stark scientific warnings – that we need to stop using fossil fuels as soon as possible. This is why CAT is organising the Convergence on Zero conference in Washington, DC, from 25-26 June 2009. Scientists, energy experts, economists and politicians will debate fresh social and technological ideas on climate and energy beyond fossil fuels.


Wales and America have both recently embarked on historic policy decisions that will legally bind both their administrations to climate change and sustainability policies. After observing the unfolding policy journeys of both countries I believe the Convergence on Zero meeting is a timely one.

The American Clean Energy Security Act 2009, aka the Waxman-Markey Bill, signals a bold commitment to tackle greenhouse gas emissions at home before stepping forward to negotiate an international emissions reduction agreement for the post-Kyoto period. However, it is merely a signal, a smoke signal that melts into air, disappearing through its own loop hole.

Digging beneath the rhetoric, those following closely the evolution of this “historic” Act have exposed some inadequacies that seriously undermine the lofty intentions that President Obama touted on the campaign trail not so long ago. A clean energy infrastructure, energy efficiency on a national scale, green jobs, massive investment in renewables, it all sounded so good. The Act has emerged as a rather anaemic carrier pigeon rather than the soaring eagle it could have been.


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Why green manure is important and how to use it in your garden

by Katie Croft Gardens Department

As the sun’s finally shining and our seedlings are ready for planting out, now’s the time for turning in the green manures on site. In these pictures you can see me turning in the field beans in our green manure display, where we demonstrate a few different kinds and what they’re used for.


Green manures are a key part of organic gardening, and they serve a number of different purposes. They improve soil structure, prevent soil erosion, can inhibit weed growth and most importantly, increase the soil’s fertility. The main idea is that you grow a certain green manure crop on your land, and when it’s still young (about 6 weeks is perfect), you ‘turn’ it in, or dig it in. The plant then slowly releases its nutrients as it decays and increases the amount of organic matter in the soil. Green manure crops are hardy and can be grown over winter and spring, so you don’t need to leave the ground bare.



Field beans, like all of the bean family, is a nitrogen-fixing plant. It has little nodules on its roots where nitrogen-fixing bacteria live in a fascinating mutual relationship- the bacteria transform nutrients from the air into a form usable for the plant, and the plant feeds the bacteria with sugars from its roots.

There loads of great green manure crops that can be grown at different times of year and well in different climates, or even as a ground cover underneath other crops to increase fertility year round so do a bit of research and plan some into your sowing calendar


You might be interested in our organic gardening courses, our free information and books on garening or visiting the gardens here at CAT. You might also want to download a detailed guide to using green manures produced by Garden Organic or have a look at the BBC’s guide to green manures.

Community Power: installing solar water heating for CAT’s onsite community

by Helen Theaker Engineering Department

Last week I installed a new solar water heating system on one of the houses here at CAT. The houses are part of the CAT’s on site community. The flickr slideshow below shows you how I did it. Make sure you click the ‘descriptions’ button in the slide show for my explanation of what is happening in each picture.



Find out more about our solar water heating courses and the community that live here at the Centre for Alternative Technology.

A new arrival: the final piece of our renewable heating puzzle

by Dave Hood Engineering Department

With a mix of excitement and trepidation, I watched the 3½ tonne hot water storage tank get craned into place next to our new woodchip power station. Its job is to act as the thermal store – a big hot water storage tank – for the whole of our district heating scheme. This was the final piece of the puzzle the CAT engineering team had been waiting for.


Its importance is that we can now begin the final stage of connecting the new Combined Heat and Power (CHP) system up to the site district heating network and the new WISE building, and get all of the testing done in time for the winter heating season. This will draw to a close the design and installation stages of a project I have been working on for almost 3 years.


However, it does not stop there, as the installation is only one part of our site energy strategy. In September, I will start my doctorate research into biomass CHP, and its potential for community scale systems in the UK. Hopefully this will give others the opportunity to learn from the results of our experiments in this fledgling field of energy generation.

I tried to remember the importance of this, as the tank was lowered into place and set into its permanent home, ready for its connection, but a wry smile crept across my face every time I saw the big yellow crane and I remembered that engineers never really grow up!

You can watch a slide show the entire delivary of the new hot water storage tank by clicking the button below.


For help with flickr slideshows click here.

Measuring the footprint of the Dyfi Valley

by: Julie Bromilow Education Department

“I would thoroughly endorse the value of the learning experiences these pupils benefited from” said Jan Bond, External Subject Expert for Geography at the Welsh Assembly Government after visiting Machynlleth primary school to interview children about the Dyfi Footprint project they had just completed.


The Dyfi Footprint is a joint venture between CAT who work with schools, and Ecodyfi, who work within the local community. An Eco Footprint measures the amount of land that we use to produce the resources that we need, to deal with our waste and sequester our carbon, and tells us that if everyone in the world lived the same lifestyle we do in Wales then we’d need nearly three planets to support us. My work in the school was set to investigate the notion that the wider community can be reached through schools. The project mainly focused on an eight week programme with an enthusiastic year six class, but also included workshops for the school governors, all the teaching staff, the PTA, and members of the Eco Committee and School Council. The Year 6 work began with a planning session with Mr Jones the class teacher – I told him what I wanted to do, and he told me what targets needed to be met in all the core subjects. Incorporating these curriculum needs into the project made sure that it was never an ‘add-on’ – instead it was integrated into the teaching.

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Feeling sheepish at the Plaid Cymru sustainability conference

by: Peter Harper

In April I spoke at the Plaid Cyrmu Conference on Sustainability. I was keen to raise a few issues that I knew would be controversial. Although Plaid now share power in the Welsh Assembly Government their members appear to have retained the ability to speak their minds and engage in intelligent debate.

On these occasions, given any sort of platform, I always raise the question of livestock because otherwise it’s ignored. Sheep and cows are net greenhouse-gas emitters and could not survive a systematic decarbonisation programme in anything like their present numbers. Reduced to say 10-20%, the huge areas of land they presently occupy would become available for other purposes in the new carbon-economy. I never have time to present the caveats and nuances, and it tends to come over a bit simplistic. Perhaps you need that in a public debate, but naturally this kind of sentiment does not go down well with stock farmers, well represented in a Plaid Cymru whose voter base is largely rural Wales (nor with Patrick Holden of the Soil Association, who was sat next to me on the panel!).  But I was not lynched; on the contrary the discourse was polite and reflective. The most telling point made against me was that if we restricted meat production in Britain, in a market system it would simply be bought from abroad. Quite true, unless the ‘drivers’ for decarbonisation are internationally agreed and enforced, as they would have to be. It reminded me that we are still a long way from a proper global decarbonisation plan, and it’s very difficult for small countries to go it alone.

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Values for money: rethinking the food system. Interview with Professor Tim Lang

By Peter Harper

Few people know more about food than Professor Tim Lang. I put some questions to him for Clean Slate magazine

Tim Lang

PH: One of your most influential books has been Food Wars. Why ‘Food Wars’?
TL: You have to go back to the period just after the Second World War when memories of food shortages and supply disruptions caused acute anxiety. There was wide agreement worldwide that we just had to have much more, and much cheaper, food. It was accepted that the state should take the lead and promote investments in agricultural technology. In the book we called this approach ‘productionism’ to emphasise how, across the food supply chain, there was unity about the need to increase production and remove blockages everywhere. In its own terms, productionism worked. More food was produced; shelves groaned with choice; prices dropped. UK households now spend less than 10% of their income on food, compared with 25% in 1950. A hiccup occurred in the early 1970s with an oil crisis (sound familiar?) but then productionism was saved by the Green Revolution, a combination of agrichemicals and new plant breeding which boosted output. This turned food-poor countries like India into net exporters. So faith in productionism was and is all very understandable, given how the problem was couched: a lack of food. But even as productionism appeared to be succeeding, its downsides gradually started to dawn on us all: the accumulating environmental damage; the health effects of over- and mal- consumption; the almost total dependence on oil; and the unbalanced diets and warping of food culture.

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The Education Department

by Jo Gwillim Education Department

I’m Jo – part of education team at CAT. There’s 7 of us in all looking after different aspects, running the residential eco cabins, organising schools that visit for the day, running activities for pupils, students, and teachers. Where? Mostly here but more and more we spread the “Education for Sustainable Development” message by going out to people as well as waiting for them to come to us.


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