Graduates from the Centre for Alternative Technology celebrate their academic successes at ceremony.
Over 40 students from the Graduate School of the Environment at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Machynlleth celebrated the successful completion of their studies with an award ceremony on Saturday 14th November.
The evening also included a buffet dinner, a welcome from CAT’s chief executive Adrian Ramsay and a keynote speech by Professor Herbert Girardet, leading environmental commentator and author of several books including the seminal “Blueprint for a Green Planet” (1987) and “Creating Regenerative Cities” (2014).
Adrian Ramsay, CEO of CAT, said they were the people who would be ‘making it happen’ in the transition to a zero carbon future:
“The world faces many challenges in the transition to a zero carbon future. The knowledge and skills that our graduates learn by studying at the Graduate School for the Environment equip them well to be the people making it happen. We are very proud of this year’s CAT graduates and look forward to hearing about their successes as they take the knowledge gained from their time at CAT into their careers, communities and home lives.”
Five students received particular awards for excellence in their dissertations. Helen Nicholls received an award for her dissertation comparing the impact of different waste water treatment systems on climate change. Lee Eyre received an award for his research into the role of metaphor in the world views of environmentalists. Elgan Roberts’ award-winning study looked at the greenhouse gas emissions from small scale hydroelectric schemes in Wales. Anne-Clare Landolt received an award for her dissertation on storing heat to improve greenhouse growing conditions. Lucy Jones also received an award for her technical report on a more sustainable alternative to supermarkets.
This year’s graduates join over one thousand people who have graduated from CAT’s postgraduate courses and are working for sustainability in their work and communities across the UK and around the world. CAT graduates have taken their skills to many professions which need expertise in sustainability and many companies have been set up by CAT graduates, bringing innovative solutions to environmental problems.
Yesterday the REBE (Renewable Energy and the Built Environment) students were taken to visit Mynydd Gorddu Wind Farm located near Tal-y-bont, Ceredigion, West Wales and given a tour by the site manager. As a media volunteer I get to document all the interesting excursions students make, and so I thanked the weather gods for a sunny day, pulled on my long johns and packed my camera. After bumpy ride down narrow roads on the local coach, we arrived and were greeted by the sites operational manager, a sharp man in his forties. With the sun on our backs, we huddled round like penguins as he explain how this wind farm, which has been successfully running for nearly 20 years was started.
Developed initially by Trydan Gwynt Cyfyngedig in 1997 – a company owned by a local family, Dr Dafydd Huws and Mrs Rhian Huws, npower renewables was involved in the early stages but in 1993 ceased to be involved with the project. Beaufort wind Limited are listed as the owner now, RWE Innogy as the operator. Dr Dafydd Huws had been inspired by the turbines at CAT and later through visits to Denmark where the technology has been developed further. In 1997 however, npower renewables agreed to assume responsibility for the financing and construction of the wind farm. Trydan Gwynt Cyfyngedig became a co-operative venture between npower renewables, now called RWE Innogy and the Huws family company, Amgen, the welsh for “positive change”. Dr Huws and his company Amgen continue to have, a leading role in the development of the wind farm and its operation.
By all accounts this wind farm was remarkably successful, with a good track record of fulfilling its potential, but like all machines they do need maintenance.It was interesting to hear direct from the horses mouth what its like to manage a site such as this, what kind of decisions you have to make when lightening strikes and melts the conductors. Calling crane companies and having to pay them double so they can come lift off the hub and propellers the next day, and get the turbine back in action as quick as possible. These kind of quick financial calculations, mixed in with practical monitoring and maintenance are all part of a days work for a wind farm operational site manager.
The site was awarded European grant of £1.3m to trial four different types of turbine but today there stands 19 turbines, with two different diameters, as the planning authorities weren’t so happy with the idea of too many different machines scattered across the hills. The planners also ensured that the sub-station, where the electricity is sent into the grid and where the turbines are monitored (with P.C’s STILL running from 1995, a little fact to amaze the techo- heads) is built in a true vernacular style, with stone walls, wooden doors and iron detailing.
If you are interested in the performance of these medium sized wind turbines then you may be interested in the following; 7 of the turbines are each rated at 600 kilo Watts with a hub height of 34 metres and a rotor diameter of 43m. The other 12 are rated at 500kW each with a hub height of 35m and rotor diameter of 41m. The rotors on both turbine sizes turn at an approximate speed of 30 revolutions per minute (rpm), driving a gearbox within the nacelle which is in turn connected to a generator. The turbines start to generate electricity automatically when the wind speed reaches around 11 miles per hour (mph), and achieve maximum output at around 33 mph. They shut down when the wind speed exceeds 56 mph, which is rare. The farm has a combined maximum output of 10.2 megawatts.
I have no pretentions of being an engineer, and so many of these technical details the REBE students were avidly scribbling down passed me by and I tuned into the gentle sound of the blades swooshing above me in the cold winter wind and their majestic white silhouettes cutting into the crisp blue sky, a symbol to me of beauty and hope. I was also noticing the red kites sailing high in the sky, the fresh strong blast of cold wind whipping around my ears and noticed a suprising birds nest above one of the windmills doors at the base.
I am interested in the politics and people behind these endeavours and was intrigued to hear how carefully Dr Dafydd Huws tried to maximize the returns to the community by ensuring the windfarm infrastructure spread across more than one owners land. There is a fund, “Cronfa Eleri” that’s administered by Amgen, who have set up the Cronfra Eleri Advisory Committee, ensuring that people who understand the needs of the community decide how the money is spent to provide the widest community benefit. The fund yields about £10,00 a year and in 2011 the fund helped buy a new heating system for a community centre in Ysgoldy Bethlehem, Llandre, a new shed for the local Talybont nursery, the re-wiring and renovation of the local church in Bontgoch, and towards a new tennis court in conjunction with the Playingfield Society Rhydypennau.
As we wandered back to the coach, we waved good-bye to the beautiful bullocks, (the wind farm was fully integrated with the traditional farming practices of the area, with sheep and cows grazing beneath the turbines) and all looked forward to a delicious lunch awaiting us at CAT. The electricity from the farm traced our steps, passing along a cables supported by wooden poles from Bow street to Machynlleth, carrying clean electricity to the local electricity grid network for use in local homes, schools and businesses. All in all it had been a very successful trip, but lets see what Alexandra King, a REBE student who came too had to say;
Who are you and what do you do when your not studying at CAT?
“I’m Alexandra King. I live and work in Bath. My husband is a consulting engineer, I work with him, mainly as a support at the moment, but hope that after finishing this course, I will be more involved in the engineering design.”
Why did you decide to study at CAT?
“CAT is the obvious choice – to my knowledge it is the best place in the country to study renewables. Why? For a long time now I was a mecologist by choice. I believe in sustainable lifestyle. We’ve installed PVs on our roof as soon as we had a chance. Renewable energy is clean and available everywhere, even in the most remote locations. It will not run out anytime soon, unlike fossil fuels. And if we start making changes now, by the time we do run out of coal and gas, we should have good enough infrastructure to keep us going. I don’t know if we could slow down the climate change, but there is always hope.”
What did you learn from the trip to the windfarm?
“I’ve always liked wind turbines, and this visit just reinforced this affection. They are so elegant and not at all noisy. The footprint of a turbine is very small. I love the possibility of the double use of land (cattle or crops), turbines scale easily, the construction time is relatively short, unfortunately so is the lifespan of a wind farm. But I am sure we can overcome this in the future.
One more thing, I’ve visited several wind farms and yet to see a single dead bird, yet, driving home a few days ago, saw 8 corpses on the motorway… one of them was a badger, I think, but still.”
How do you find the teaching on the course, and is there anything you would change about your student experience with CAT?
“I love CAT, wouldn’t change a thing. Except I wish I’d started earlier, like several years ago, but never mind now. I think this course is well balanced; it will give me a broad understanding of principles and technologies that will be very useful in my future work.”
Looking back on the introductory half of the first module there has been a lot to take in! Meeting lecturers and other students on the course was re-assuring and surprising; the lecturers all have good levels of knowledge and practical experience (I have paid for some courses in the past where the trainers taught from a book and didn’t know the subject), whilst the students have come from a broad range of occupations and disciplines such as finance, engineering and teaching.
So far the course has laid the ground work with lectures explaining the current energy and policy status of the UK and covered global environmental issues and equipped us with the tools to learn; access to on-line research resources and essay writing lectures to name but a few (this is essential for me as I left college 25 years ago). A lot is packed into a day, with teaching finishing at around 8pm, then time flies as we sit in the evenings and discuss the thought inspiring lectures (often intermingled with anecdotes and drinks from the bar). I’ve been impressed with the lecturer/student ratio, there is always someone to ask if I missed something in a practical session. Saturday night sees an earlier finish at 6pm (this time following a seminar with our tutor which helps to demonstrate the type of work that is expected from us) after which some of us ventured into Machynlleth to find that the pubs are good and the locals are friendly. Sunday is a short day with two lectures and a packed lunch to see us on our way. I depart for a 6 hour train journey back to Southampton and feel pleased that my fears were unfounded; I have made the right choice, now I just need to write that essay and prepare my presentation for the second part of the module… That attendance covers the physics of energy use in buildings (closely related to my work), energy efficiency and an introduction to heat pumps.
Toby works as a consultant on domestic new-build housing, carrying out SAP (CO2) and Code for Sustainable Homes assessments along the South coast. He came to CAT because he wanted to challenge the answers that assessment tools give and he feels that a ‘hands on’ approach to investigating current technologies would be more useful.
Having 22 years’ teaching experience, and not liking the way things have been going for some years, I decided to try somehow to make a difference both to my life and possibly the lives of many others by taking more practical skills and thinking back into the classroom. But how to do it? Budgets are tight and present government educational climate wrong to try to do it from the inside, so, having long been interested in the world of renewable energy, sustainable building methods and permaculture design, I have decided to get trained up and qualified, and try to deliver what I feel is crucial stuff back into the world of primary and secondary education from the outside.
And so I began to look into the possibilities. It didn’t take long to realize that the courses available at CAT offer something you cannot get anywhere else, in terms of the wealth of knowledge concentrated there, the immersive environment, the “what you see around you everywhere reflects what you learn” whole ethos of the site itself, the great reputation of CAT and its long-standing history. I visited CAT as an enthusiastic 7 year old, and remember the revolutionary half-flushing toilets and hand-made wind turbine. From tiny acorns, as the saying goes.
I arrived on Saturday morning feeling excited but rather apprehensive about the weekend, and as the funicular carriage heaved me up the steep slope, it was difficult not to feel seven again, with my weekend’s belongings stuffed in a bag and a thousand questions stuffed in my head.
The gathering of people in front of the WISE building reflected the sheer diversity of those interested and driven to make whatever differences they can to tackle the environmental changes happening to the world, and to learn more about it, or to pass on their expertise, and I was immediately made to feel welcome, and taken on an impromptu tour of some of the work undertaken by students during a week of trying out different wall building and rendering techniques, including home-made lime putty, pizza ovens and a potential sauna. CAT students obviously know how to have fun 😉
The weekend formally began with an introduction to CAT from Tim Coleridge, followed by a lecture about climate change and adaptation delivered at lightning speed by Ranyl Rhydwen, who could get his message across to a sack of spuds, so lively is his style and passionate is his conviction. Catching our breath (!) we were whisked off on tours of some of the AEES [course to be replaced by Sustainability and Adaptation in September] students’ projects, and very industrious stuff it is too. From investigations into the properties of different mixes of hemp shives and lime, to exterior render experiments, some even including flour in the mix, and various different building projects underway, it was all very interesting. Brain overload was avoided by discussing also the social side of things; the starlit sauna up the steep slope behind the WISE building, or a, dare I say it, drinking den down the Magical Mole Hole!
Following a well-earned break, an exemplification of course modules and a Q&A session we went off to find our rooms. The first thing to hit me was the aroma of wood oil, and then the sliding door onto the decking area with daisies and a PV array, courtesy of this year’s REBE students. I could have stayed in there for the rest of the evening, except for the promise of pizza baked in a clay oven, a cool cider, some great company and an unexpected stomp up the slope to see the site from the wind turbines and to get eaten alive by midges as the sun sank behind some lenticular clouds.
A peaceful sleep, a renewable shower and a vegetarian CAT-special breakfast later, we were all gathered to listen to Tobi Kellner’s Zero Carbon Britain lecture. This was possibly one of the most powerful 40 minutes I have ever experienced, and one with a hugely positive message. I have since returning home, downloaded the pdf file of this lecture with its brilliantly clear and user-friendly info-graphics.
I had to leave early, to see if my wild-camping partner and dog had made it to Aberdovey in the heat of the weekend (which they had), but my head was left buzzing with all the activities and messages I had seen and heard, and the fabulous folk I met, and hope to meet again, as a student. Fingers crossed.
If you are an avid reader of CAT’s blog you will be well aware of the range of MSc Programmes offered by our Graduate School of the Environment. This May we are offering the opportunity for anybody interested in studying one of our courses, or anyone who wants to know more about the work of the GSE, to come and visit us to find out more about the unique experience of studying at CAT.
Based in a stunning setting in the Welsh hills, the Centre has been providing sustainability education for over 35 years and offers a range of inspirational postgraduate programmes. A unique combination of leading professionals, academics and authors teach and lead the the courses, offering GSE students the ability to develop not only their theoretical and academic knowledge, but also their practical skills.
Our two day event is no ordinary open day, with leading researchers sharing their work on climate change adaptation, practical activities on site led by students and an evening of pizza and entertainment, it promises to be a memorable and inspiring weekend that gives prospective students real insight into the experience of studying with the GSE.
Our programmes are designed to equip our graduates with the skills required to work in a sector of increasing importance and relevance and with high demand for skilled individuals.
The graduate school is a recognised CPD provider and its MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment is accredited by the Energy Institute.
Flexibility is at the heart of our unique on-site courses; students come on periodic 5 days attendances at the GSE, which could allow students to continue with their current line of work while studying.
The distance learning course uses a highly interactive, modern virtual learning environment with flexible contact times and high levels of student-tutor interaction.
All courses benefit from a diverse and experienced student community unlike anywhere in the UK.
Graduates from the programme can look forward to careers in a large architectural practice, local government, government departments, commercial companies, and within the education sector. Over fifty companies have been formed by alumni of the Graduate School of the Environment (GSE). Alumni include Stirling Prize nominees, members of government advisory panels, respected academics, authors, and award winning designers and contractors.
But don’t just take our word for it; come and see for yourself!
For more information on attending the Open Weekend, please contact email@example.com.
If you would like to take the opportunity to stay in one of our lovely WISE rooms on the night of Saturday May 17th, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for prices and a booking form.
The other morning I cycled past a beautiful ancient oak tree, ripped from the earth in last month’s violent storms. The newspapers have been full of images of devastation from the flooded Somerset Levels. Overseas, we’ve seen extreme snow in the US, bushfires in Australia and a tropical cyclone killing 5,700 people in the Philippines.
It would be easy to say ‘I told you so.’ For decades CAT and its many supporters have been warning the world about climate change and developing ways to mitigate it. But scoring points won’t save our beautiful planet. Across the world people are learning how to adapt to climate change but if we are not careful, some of those adaptations are only going to make the situation worse. We must act now to lead climate change adaptation in the right direction. We need appropriate adaptation that also addresses the root cause of the problem.
Since 1950, the earth has warmed by 0.7°C, due to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and other human activities. If these aren’t checked rapidly, then by 2050 what we’re experiencing now will be remembered as a mild wet period. We’d be seeing a pattern of deluges followed by droughts – which means massive social challenges as well as environmental. How are we going to protect the most vulnerable and avoid conflict when these changes really hit?
Governments are already being forced to develop adaptation strategies. But with many ‘deniers’ still in power, there’s a real risk they will do it the wrong way. Quick fix solutions to climate change, such as pouring concrete into the floors of buildings at risk of flooding, or cranking up the air conditioning in offices, would actually increase greenhouse gas emissions.
Our society must adapt sustainably and not just store up problems for the future. To achieve such a fast and radical culture change will take nothing less than a new, low carbon industrial revolution.
CAT is ideally placed to develop the right kind of expertise and share the knowledge that will steer governments, organisations and individuals away from the wrong decisions and help them adapt sustainably.
For 40 years, CAT and its supporters have taught and inspired people to deliver practical, sustainable solutions. Our graduates include environmental policy advisors, local authority energy efficiency experts, architects specialising in sustainability and engineers managing renewable energy installations.
We’re launching our Changing Planet campaign to share this knowledge as widely and as fast as we can. Can you donate now to help us rise to this vital challenge?
If you can help us, here’s how we will help the world:
We’ll teach new courses, enabling change-makers to lead sustainable adaptation: From September, CAT will be teaching a series of new courses on sustainability and adaptation. We’ll teach professionals how they need to approach building, town planning, land use and water security in the light of our changing environment.
We’ll spread our message to more people by making our Eco-cabins accessible to a wider range of educational groups, improving our visitor centre and holding more conferences and distance learning courses to make our knowledge widely available.
We’ll keep inspiring research leading to new technologies: We have already won awards for our ground-breaking research into hemp – an astonishing crop which, used for building renovations, could massively reduce the UK’s energy consumption.
But we can’t do it without you.
If you can make a donation today, it will help us inspire and educate many more people. For example, £100 could pay for one of our world-class experts to write and deliver a lecture on climate change adaptation. £2,500 could pay to put on a conference on adaptation towards climate change for 200 delegates.
“A broad overview of a massive area, and a very in-depth practical outcome. Over two visits to CAT we covered everything from biogas buses to chimney design and coppicing. We carried out detailed studies of a domestic and a commercial building to design a suitable biomass heating system, calculating passive gains, heat loads based on dynamic modelling, plant room lay out and financial appraisal.
“We delivered a group presentation in the second attendance, a great opportunity to team up, learn from each other, and present our heating solution to fellow students and four tutors. I particularly enjoyed the trip to visit a local wood processing business, two biomass heating systems of very different scales with the chance to interview the owners and operators, and the IBERS centre for biofuel development. Our practicals included measuring fuel moisture content, testing and calculating the efficiency of a storm kettle, and experimenting and tinkering with various biomass boilers on the CAT site. Other factors that made it a special experience were the fantastic food, accommodation, course organisation, accessible friendly tutors, stunning location, the Tafarn Dwynant down the road, and a great bunch of students, all exploring and challenging themselves to question how we move our energy systems in the right direction.”
October’s module at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) was the buildings related part of the course. Having worked in building renovation for the last few years this subject was right up my street and I was looking forward to finding out more about the topic.
One of the main take-home messages of the week was that before you even think about bolting on renewable energy tech like PV panels or heat pumps you should really first consider the energy efficiency of your building – to paraphrase Rob Gwillim, one of the course leaders: ‘energy conservation is the cheapest form of renewable energy’. In other words, minimise the losses from draughts and poor insulation as this is a far more cost-effective way of reducing your carbon footprint than retrofitting RE to your building.
Again, we had some very passionate guest speakers along during the week, who showed us some great examples of intelligent building design, that made use of techniques such as passive solar heating and natural ventilation. We were also lucky enough to have a visit to Canolfan Hyddgen (The Stag Centre), just a few miles away from CAT in Machynlleth. This was the first non-domestic PassivHaus certified construction in the UK and is a multi-purpose building owned by Powys County Council. For a quick breakdown of what PassivHaus means, go here. In a nutshell, it’s a super-low energy building standard than can reduce heating requirement by around 80-90% through super air-tightness and insulation levels. The air-tightness criteria for PH is about 17 times more stringent than current UK building standards for example.
Denmark will be adopting PH as its building standard from 2015 – setting a fantastic example of how legislation can make a big difference if there is the political will to drive it forwards. In stark contrast, in the UK our government is currently discussing reducing green levies on energy bills and commencing nuclear new build!
All in all it was another interesting, thought-provoking and enjoyable week (once we had got our first presentations done!). In November it’s the hydro module – one that I am particularly looking forward to (but not the inevitable soaking that is bound to occur when we go out into the hills!)
Tom will be blogging about the REBE course after each module. You can see all of his posts here.
Find out more about Tom over on his personal blog.
We’ve asked some of our current students to write a short blog post about their studies after each module. You can see all of our student blogs here. Over the next year or so Rachel, a former long-term volunteer at CAT, will share her experiences on the Part II Architecture course.
In my last blog, I wrote about the beginning of our first project on the Professional Diploma: to create a vision for the future of the CAT site. We spent the September module forming our own impressions of the site and working on our ideas for how we felt the site could be developed.
Coming back in October for the next module, it was time to open the floor to the CAT community. In the lead up to the module, an invitation was sent out to CAT staff for a ‘Planning for Real’ exercise in the Straw Bale Theatre on the Friday afternoon of our module – a chance for us to meet the people who work at CAT and listen to their ideas. Arriving at the beginning of the week, this gave us a short deadline to get ready.
The centrepiece of the Planning for Real exercise was an enormous 1:200 scale model of the entire CAT site; a prop which would help in this discussion, and give us a chance to express our own ideas at the end of the project. In the weeks we were away from CAT, we had all worked individually on parts of the model (buildings, trees and the model base), but it became very clear at the beginning of the module that we still had a lot of work to do if we wanted the model finished by the end of the week!
So we split up into groups and set about turning the bare bones of our model into something we could present to the CAT community. Some people worked on the buildings, modelling any that we had missed in our initial survey of the site, while others cut out the model base and used cork to recreate the dramatic landscape that surrounds CAT. A team was sent out to collect small bits of trees and twigs to represent the vegetation of the site, and add to the work that was being done to define some of the existing paths and areas of greenery that populate the area.
In between all of this, of course, we still had lectures to attend! This module the lectures focused on some aspects of building physics: heat transfer in buildings, thermal comfort and thermal mass being the main topics. The highlight of this month’s lectures, of course, was the sauna practical; a short stint in the sauna followed by a brief swim in the lake really helped to illustrate some of the basics of thermal comfort!
Finally, the week came to a close with the ‘Planning for Real’ exercise. We only just finished the model in time: even as people started arriving, we were still drilling holes for trees! Still, the afternoon was a success – we had a fantastic turnout, with an enthusiastic response to our questions about the future of the site. Everyone wanted their say, and we gathered a huge range of ideas and opinions during the afternoon from all the people who came.
We’ve asked some of our current students to write a short blog post about their studies after each module. You can see all of our student blogs here. Over the next year or so Rachel, a former long-term volunteer at CAT, will share her experiences on the Part II Architecture course.
The first week was an introduction to the realities of climate change, one that will really set the context for our studies over the next year and a half. To start the week, we were plunged in at deep end with Ranyl Rhydwen’s lecture on environmental change – an interesting summary of the science behind climate change and the urgent need for immediate action. Having worked with Ranyl for six months before the start of the course, I was already familiar with some of the topics he covered, but it was still daunting to see the scale of the challenge we face! His adaptation and transformation lecture later in the week gave us a slightly more optimistic look at the future.
Our other lecturers looked at different aspects of climate change and sustainability: Tom Barker introduced us to the importance of biodiversity and the need to protect and encourage it; Adam Tyler summarised the current energy situation – how much we use, and where it comes from. We also heard about CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain project from Tobi Kellner: a scenario where Britain could rapidly decarbonise and be run entirely on renewable energy. Finally, Tim Coleridge’s lecture near the end of the week talked about the role of the construction industry, and the need to adapt the built environment for future climate conditions.
The week wasn’t all lectures, however, as we also began our first studio project! We have been tasked with producing a master plan for the future of the CAT, a possible vision of what the site could be in the next five, ten or twenty years – working alongside members of the community here and building upon strategies that already exist.
As most people were new to CAT, our first job was to get to know the site (or, in my case, get to know it better). So, sketchbooks and cameras in hand, we set out to explore. For two days we wandered the site collecting information, drawing and photographing the things that caught our eye, talking to members of staff and visitors and reading up on the history of the site. Even having already worked at CAT for some time, I was able to really get involved and learn new things about this fascinating place.
Later, as we collated our notes and sketches, the issues and problems we wanted to tackle quickly became apparent – as did the potential opportunities. We set about preparing some initial strategies and proposals (gaining some insight into designing by consensus along the way), and discussed how we were going to involve the CAT community in our project.
Next month, we will start the consultation with CAT members of staff and ask them what it is they want for the site in the future. We’ve done our groundwork – let’s see where it goes from there!