ZCBlog: Wind, the Liberal Democrats and Nuclear

In a disappointing U-turn for the party masquerading as ‘green’, this Saturday the Liberal Democrats voted to drop their longstanding opposition to nuclear energy.

Paul and Danielle from Zero Carbon Britain say of the decision:

“It is deeply concerning that a political party manifesting as ‘green’ would take such a regressive stance on nuclear, while the case for investment in renewables continues to build in terms of safety, local job creation and rising to the challenge of climate change.

The UK is ideally positioned to benefit from sustainable, home-grown and renewable energy technologies. Technologies that, unlike nuclear, do not have costly or difficult waste to manage; do not increase the risk of very serious and lasting damage from natural disasters or global political instabilities, and do not require expensive and lengthy decommissioning processes; we do not currently have plans for the high levels of nuclear waste we have generated already.”

Most importantly, recent modelling for the Zero Carbon Britain report demonstrates how we can in fact meet our energy needs with 100% renewable technology, with no nuclear component at all. Managing variability in a 100% renewable system can be achieved using long and short term energy storage technologies available today (see page 63 of the report).

In fact, strong winds on Sunday (just one day after the Liberal Democrats’ U-turn) led to new wind power records in the UK. At around 2pm, the National Grid’s live data feed  reported production of more than 5.7 GW of power from wind. This the highest ever recorded in the UK, producing 18% of the UK’s electricity and getting very close to the 6.6 GW produced by the UK’s nuclear power stations at that point.

And during the early hours of Monday, another record was broken: at 4am, absolute wind power output had gone down a bit to 4.7 GW, but due to the lower overall power consumption at that time of the day, this was enough for another record: for the first time in history, UK wind turbines produced 20% of all electricity in the grid.

CC Image courtesy of Phault on Flickr

Of course, the highly variable nature of wind power means that at other times there is much less power available. Opponents of wind power will be quick to point out that only a week ago UK wind output hit a low of 0.085 GW (0.2% of demand). Therefore, it’s more useful to look at longer term averages:

In 2013, the average so far has been 5.2%, up from a 4.0% average for 2012. And if the autumn of 2013 is a windy one then that figure could still increase, especially as some large offshore wind farms were completed this year.

The UK does not need base-load power from nuclear; we can manage variability in a 100% renewable system with the appropriate and flexible energy storage technologies available today.

That the Liberal Democrats are adopting this new stance, alongside pro-fracking commitments, under the banner of a ‘zero carbon Britain’ is a disgrace.

Nuclear is high risk, unsustainable and an energy source we can do without.

BBC Energy Day – Tobi’s Perspective

Thursday 5th September this year was the BBC’s ‘Energy Day’. BBC Radio 5 Live was powered entirely by renewables throughout the day as they hosted debates on and around the theme of energy. Tobi Kellner, one of CAT’s renewable technology experts, was on hand during the 5 Live breakfast programme to provide an expert opinion on Zero Carbon Britain and the future…

When I got off the tram at Salford’s MediaCity UK at shortly after 8am, I was a bit apprehensive about finding the venue for the BBC 5 Live Energy Day. I needn’t have worried. Right on the piazza in front of their snazzy their snazzy glass & steel office towers, the BBC people had assembled what looked a bit like the cross between a village fete and the CAT Renewable Energy MS. Between various tents and marquees there was a sea of solar panels, a forest of micro wind turbines, various hamster wheels and bicycles for ‘human power’, two cows – and a real Secretary of State for Energy, Ed Davey. Yes, there were some obvious flaws: Half the solar panels were evidently not wired up, the location was utterly useless for wind power, and the Energy Minister is part of David Cameron’s “greenest government ever”. But it was clear that the BBC was keen on putting renewables right at the heart of the debate about energy, and that their approach was to combine the big, heavy questions (how can we keep energy affordable?) with some more light-hearted ones (how many cyclists does it take to power a radio show?)

Bills, not bears

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the debate I was invited to join was what wasn’t talked about: climate change. Right from the very first email the BBC sent me when they invited me, it was clear that for them the energy debate is all about “how can we protect people from rising energy costs”; it’s all about (fuel) bills, not (polar) bears. And from one perspective that focus is completely understandable, as it is simply unacceptable that there are families that have to choose between heating and eating, especially while big energy companies still make obscene profits. But there is reason to suspect that this new focus of the energy debate isn’t only driven by a concern for the poor. As a quick internet search for “Daily Mail energy bills” shows, tabloids tell us that the main reason for rising prices are ‘green taxes’ and wind turbines, even though in reality rising fossil fuel prices were to blame for most of the recent increase in household energy prices.

Breakfast with Ed

Fortunately, when Radio 5 live Breakfast went on air, it became obvious that people just don’t buy the story of ‘green vs affordable’.

So I had my concerns when, clutching my copy of the latest Zero Carbon Britain report, I went into the broadcast tent for Your Call. Fortunately, around 9 minutes into the programme there was an opportunity to introduce the ZCB report and explain that, yes, it would cost a lot of money, but that it would be cheaper in the long run, and that the money would go into manufacturing jobs, not fossil fuel imports, and that CAT advocates much more ambitious policies on energy efficiency.

Ed Davey, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, was with us in the tent and had the rather unenviable job of defending the government’s flagship programme on energy efficiency: the ‘Green Deal’. So far, around 58,000 people have had their homes assessed under the scheme but only 132 of them had signed up for energy efficiency measures under the Green Deal. As I put it to Mr Davey, by expecting people to pay market rate loans on energy efficiency measures under the Green Deal while giving generous tax rebates to ‘fracking’ companies, the government isn’t exactly sending a clear signal that energy efficiency is at the top of the agenda. Fortunately, Davey and I didn’t have to leave on a bad note. In response to a question from the studio audience about solar panels, I explained that in the ZCB energy mix it is actually offshore wind power, not solar, that plays the leading role. This gave our Secretary of State the opportunity to not only praise the UK’s windiness in general and the potential for offshore wind in particular, but also to tell stories of him inaugurating the world’s largest offshore wind farm (twice). Something tells me he prefers this topic to the Green Deal.

After the end of the show, Ed Davey went back to London with a copy of our Zero Carbon Britain report, and I went outside to try my luck on the energy-generating bicycle, while in the background the Blue Peter people were filming the cows (which were there to illustrate research on methane emissions).

It would be easy to be cynical about the Energy Day with all its token wind turbines and unconnected solar panels. But that would mean missing one very important  point: the debate during the hour-long live breakfast programme showed that people don’t buy into the rhetoric of ‘green vs affordable’, that there is a growing consensus that now is the time to invest in renewables and energy efficiency, precisely because energy bills are rising, and that people are getting impatient with the government’s lack of action. Who knows, Ed Davey might just read that report we gave him.


Glue Laminating at Grand Designs Live

This year CAT has been on bit of a promotional tour – travelling to London, Birmingham and London again to attend exhibitions, study fairs and conferences. Each event gave us the opportunity to talk to people about CAT’s work in the field of sustainability. From this coming Saturday however, CAT will be doing more than just talking.

We’re spending nine days camped out in the miniature village that is Grand Designs Live at the ExCel in London. Each day CAT will be providing demonstrations of glue laminating (or glulam) used to build the beautiful ‘wigloo’ you can see onsite in Wales. Jules, the carpenter who designed the toilet in association with Crafted Space, will be doing two demonstrations each day. As well as this, we have some examples of sustainable building techniques with us and the opportunity for people to ask CAT experts questions about their building woes.

Timber Arc Compost Toilet
The glue laminated compost toilet up at CAT

So what exactly is glue laminating?

It’s a process where several layers of timber are bonded together using a durable, moisture-resistant adhesive. The resulting structure can be used in both straight and curved configurations. The build that Jules undertaking requires curved lathes so he uses a ‘former’ to help hold the layers in place as the glue dries.


So why glue laminating?

Glue laminating has much lower embodied energy than reinforced concrete and steel, although of course it does entail more embodied energy than solid timber. However, the laminating process allows timber to be used for much longer spans, heavier loads, and complex shapes.

Glulam is two-thirds the weight of steel and one sixth the weight of concrete – the embodied energy to produce it is six times less than the same suitable strength of steel. Wood has a greater tensile strength relative to steel – two times on a strength-to-weight basis – and has a greater compressive resistance strength than concrete. The high strength and stiffness of laminated timbers enable glulam beams and arches to span large distances without intermediate columns, allowing more design flexibility than with traditional timber construction.

Glue Laminating
Jules clamping some glue laminated timber onto the former

We’ll be following the build live each day over on Facebook so have a look and see how it progresses!

If you like the look of the compost toilet, take a look at Jules’ website.

Grand Designs Live is open to the public from Saturday 4th to Sunday 12th May. More information can be found on their website.


Tales from the Stawbale


For three weeks CAT’s Strawbale Theatre was transformed into an inventor’s den when we ran Eco Easter Activities. Kids of all ages got involved in designing and building solar-powered machines, some of them amazingly complex. For the water-bound vehicles a nearby pond became the launching point for great voyages, powered by the sun and the wind. All of the machines were built using recycled materials, and the scope for invention was only limited by the imagination.

A young solar engineer shows off his creation

We have seen boats of all different shapes and sizes set sail – some more successful than others. Milk bottles were always a popular choice, providing a nice solid barge that was less likely to capsize. Alongside innovation was decoration, and boats were soon covered in glitter, feathers and stickers.

An exploration below the water revealed a new world of creatures to investigate. Pond-dipping discoveries included newts, frogspawn, phantom midge larvae, a dragonfly larva, lesser water boatmen and… water fleas.

Play dough, Easter card making and a scavenger hunt were just some of the other activities we enjoyed doing during the Easter holidays. Thanks to some creative craft sessions, the office now hosts Elaine the Owl and a rather fantastical feedback box.

Megan and Freya with Elaine the Owl

Thanks to all who called by over Easter. We will be running more activities for children and adults during the summer, so do come and visit. Updates will be posted on our website nearer the time.

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

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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An Introduction to Biomass

After a brief sidestep into the realm of policy with last week’s Green Deal post, we turn our focus back to renewable technology. This week we are looking at biomass.


Biomass is biological matter composed of living, or recently living organisms, which can be burned or broken down by anaerobic digestion to produce energy. Examples of biomass include wood, straw, animal waste, agricultural by-products and energy crops like oilseed rape. Domestic biomass boilers usually burn logs or wood pellets, so this post will be focusing mainly on wood biomass.

Historically, heating homes with wood was the norm. Today, the practice is popular in mainland Europe and the USA. Many houses in the UK have a fireplace, although heating an entire house using biomass is less common. With the introduction of the Renewable Heat Incentive (see the policy section below) the popularity of biomass as a potentially cheap and sustainable way of heating the home is expected to increase.

So how sustainable is biomass? Burning wood or straw releases carbon stored in the plant matter over the course of its lifetime. When fossil fuels are burned, they release carbon absorbed over millions of years. The carbon released by burning biomass is converted into new plant material by photosynthesis, negating the release of the stored carbon. However, it is important to note that wood biomass is only sustainable if the forests it comes from are properly managed. There is a limit on the land area available to grow these fuels, meaning that in the future biomass will be one of several renewable energy sources used to heat our homes.


The Upside

• Biomass is much more environmentally friendly than using coal, oil or gas. Heating the average home using a wood pellet boiler rather than oil would release 10 times less carbon dioxide (CO2) every year.

• Burning logs or wood pellets is generally cheaper than using oil or electricity. If you can harvest your own wood then it will be even more cost efficient. The Energy Saving Trust estimates that replacing an electric heating system with a biomass one can save roughly £630 per year, with a CO2 saving of 7.5 tonnes per year.

• Biomass energy sources are renewable, but we must make sure that they are sustainably managed.

• There are several different types of biomass, so you can choose which one best suits your situation.

• It is possible to use biomass from local sources. This minimises carbon emissions from transportation, and also supports the local economy. Search for local wood fuel suppliers using Log Pile.

• It is easy to store wood pellets in your home, even if you live in a small house. To see an example of a wood pellet stove being used to heat a home, watch this video.

CAT's wood pellet boiler with automated feeder. To the right are our two log boilers.

The Downside

• Installing a biomass system can mean high initial costs. A simple log stove can cost around £500, with an automated wood pellet boiler costing up to £15,000.

• Biomass is a low-carbon technology, but it is not carbon neutral. The harvesting, processing and transportation of materials all contributes to CO2 emissions. Wood pellets require more processing than logs, but they have a lower moisture content so they burn more efficiently.

• It is cheaper to order fuel in bulk, but storing large amounts of  logs can be difficult in smaller homes.


The 2008 Climate Change Act is a legally binding agreement that the UK will reduce its net carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, compared to emissions in 1990. Government policies like the Green Deal and the Energy Company Obligation are all aimed at reducing the UK’s carbon output and encouraging people to embrace less carbon-positive fuel sources.

The Government’s latest scheme is the Renewable Heat Incentive. This will operate on a system similar to the Feed-in Tariffs for wind and solar energy, with householders who take up the scheme being paid for heating their homes using renewable energy. The domestic RHI has yet to be launched in the UK, although the non-domestic scheme has been in place since November 2011. The domestic RHI is expected to be launched this summer. More information can be found on the Government website.

Preceding the launch of the RHI is the RHIPP scheme (Renewable Heat Incentive Premium Payments), giving householders money towards upgrading their heating systems.

A look inside one of CAT's log burners

And did you know…

Over the past year CAT has been building a biomass teaching facility, which has just opened. Approved by HETAS – the regulatory body for biomass installers – CAT now offers Biomass for Installers (HETAS H005). Intended for experienced plumbers and engineers who want to expand into the renewable heating market, Biomass for Installers will enable those in the plumbing and heating sector to move in to the renewable energy field.

In Ofgem’s last quarterly report of 2012 it was noted that 90% of installations done as part of the non-domestic RHI were for biomass boilers. With the imminent roll-out of the domestic RHI, the number of skilled biomass installers required can only increase.


More information on biomass can be found on CAT’s info page.

Is Alternative Technology still relevant today?

Welcome to the latest weekly blog feature! For the next 13-14 weeks we are going to be producing posts on different renewable energy sources. These posts will cover a range of topics from the basics of biomass to the construction of the cities of the future.

We can’t begin a comprehensive series on renewable energy without first addressing CAT’s long and varied history in the field of Alternative Technology. In the early 1970s when the term AT was coined and CAT was created, the world was just opening up to the idea that traditional technology may not be the only solution to global energy problems. Alternative Technology provided an umbrella term for all the systems and designs that moved beyond the confines of the traditional scientific ideas of the time. What people took from AT however, varied hugely, as the minutes from an early CAT meeting shows:

Notes from 7th – 10th November 1974

Throughout AT’s 40 year history no one definition has been universally accepted. Some people may view this as a difficulty, especially when running a centre where ‘alternative’ and ‘technology’ figure prominently in the title. Yet the malleability of AT meant that people took from it what they wanted. CAT built itself upon the term, creating its own mission statement and definition of AT in the process.

So what were Alternative Technologies back in the 1970s? A CAT mission statement from April 1974 outlines some of the intended projects in this area including, but not limited to: wind and water power, solar, gas, energy storage, heat exchangers, distillation and low energy building. It is a testament to the ingenuity and forethought of the early workers at CAT that Alternative Technologies in the 70s have become mainstream ideas today.

Over the years people have argued that renewable energy technology has become so commonplace, the phrase AT is now defunct. And yet the systems and ideas that AT contains, systems and ideas that have proven real world applications, are still seen as the alternative to other, more harmful ways of generating energy. Until such a time when solar, wind and water-based technologies are a familiar site in the UK and around the world, Alternative Technology will continue to be relevant. It may just be that the definition, as it has done many times in the past, will change.

People who question the relevance of Alternative Technology in this day and age should also consider a few other aspects that make AT a worthy proposition. In March of 2012 the Architectural Association in London hosted the AT@40 conference, marking 40 years since the concept gained such interest and momentum. You can read Paul Allen’s account of the conference here. One of the key messages taken from the conference, according to Paul, is the fact that “Alternative Technology focuses on the benefit to humans as well as to economies.” AT provides a different model for supplying energy, one that allows for small-scale solutions suited to individuals or communities.

Installing the first hydro turbine at CAT

Another vital component of the theory is constant self-auditing. Peter Harper, who coined the phrase in the early 1970s, explains how the word ‘technology’ helps to keep AT’s development grounded: “it means that things have got to work; that you submit to the Rules of Nature and cannot simply live in a dream fantasy land.” Alternative Technology is focused on practicality and rigorous testing, one of CAT’s key tenets when it was founded as a ‘living laboratory’ for sustainability, and something it continues to develop to this day.

Looking back at the history of Alternative Technology it is clear that the phrase itself is decidedly unclear. AT is a broad term that with many different definitions, yet it spawned a multitude of ideas and led to the development of non-fossil fuel energy sources. Next week we will start to look at these a little more closely, starting with a post on the Green Deal in relation to renewable energy.


Congratulations to Britain’s leading women in sustainable architecture

Trish Andrews HRH Prince Charles to some of CAT's student modern architecture

We are delighted to see that Blanche Cameron from RESET development and  former tutor at CAT, Trish Andrews tutor on the professional diploma course, Fran Bradshaw a visiting tutor, Anna Surgenor graduate of CAT’s Msc Advanced Environmental and Energy studies , Sue Roaf and Sarah Wigglesworth, course participant in straw bale building have been listed in the Architects  Journal, Women in Sustainable Architecture article.

The list recognises some of the UK’s leading women architects who are working to make sustainability an integral part of building design.  Fran Bradshaw, said: ‘We like people – that’s why and how we design. Together we can make buildings which are both a pleasure and practical to live in, and which use the earth’s resources carefully and imaginatively.’

With many of these women also teaching at universities and influencing our future architects, we could see a lot more good work to come.

Trish Andrews HRH Prince Charles to some of CAT's student modern architecture

Introducing… Euan, our new student blogger


For the next few months Euan will be taking us to the heart of  the Professional Diploma course in Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy studies course he is studying at CAT. After each module he’ll write a post letting us know about the highs and lows.

You can read the work of our previous student bloggers here. We’ll also be introducing student bloggers for our other masters courses, Renewable Energy and the Built Environment and Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies.

After completing my Part One qualification at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow,  I was lucky enough towork in a variety of roles relating to sustainability in architecture. My year out began at a small rural architecture practice in Argyll where I developed a interest in community development, land ownership and sustainable building techniques. This placement led to me becoming involved with a charity in North Glasgow concerned with bettering facilities in a neglected part of the city. I moved back to Glasgow to become more closely involved with this ambitious project and assisted in designing and building a small community space intended to increase community engagement in the area. After my role finished, I ended the year working as a volunteer co-ordinator in Uganda, where I assisted running school building projects for the University of Leeds’ ‘Raise and Give’ program.

At each of these placements I was told by different people about the Centre for Alternative Technology and the Professional Diploma course. After attending the open days I made the decision to study for my part two on the professional diploma course as it seemed to have the staff and the expertise to direct my study towards sustainable architecture.

I have been impressed by CAT in my first few months and I have learned a great deal already during the modules. The staff are very supportive in the periods in between modules and will help with the projects when you’re back home as well as on site. The year group is small enough to get to know everyone very well. We all keep in touch during the study weeks in between modules, share ideas and resources and help each other out. Each time I’ve been to CAT we’ve all had a great time and it feels like we haven’t been away. So far it has been great!