What is it like starting a new masters degree in renewable energy?

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Toby Whiting, domestic energy assessor and new student on the MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment course at CAT reports on his introductory week. 

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.

 

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The sun rises over CAT; one of the great views when the weather allows

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.

Starting an MSc is a life-changing decision

By Helen Kennedy, who just got back from CAT’s postgraduate open weekend where she came to find out about our new MSc Sustainability and Adaptation course. 

Helen Kennedy at Treffyn
Helen Kennedy at Treffyn

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 😉

CAT students making lime putty last week

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.

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Cooking pizza on Saturday night

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 missed the open weekend but are interested in the MSc courses offered at CAT visit the Graduate School of the Environment webpages or contact us.

Student Blog: PassivHaus – New Euro-Dance Genre or Low-Energy Building Standard?

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.

Student Post: Planning for Real on the Prof Dip

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!

Early days in the construction of the model

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!

Adding the ‘greenery’

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.

Now it’s time to put those ideas down on paper…

The completed model

Student Blog: the first week on the Prof Dip

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.

Last month I started the Professional Diploma in Architecture course at CAT. It’s a very different approach to the study of Architecture, one I’m really looking forward to!

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.

Sketch by Kirsty Cassels

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!

Student Blog: First week on the REBE course

I have just returned home after spending my first week on the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment (REBE) course at the Centre for Alternative Technology. It has been a packed week with five lectures or practical sessions each day, covering a broad range of topics. It has really fired my imagination and got me thinking about many aspects of sustainability that I knew little of before, so much so that on arriving home I had trouble sleeping as my head was buzzing so much!

I have long wanted to make a positive career change and have been aware of the REBE course for a couple of years and knew the excellent reputation that went with it. I came to the open day for the course in 2012 and could see for myself that they had an excellent setup at CAT, with some really passionate staff. I also met some students that were studying on the course at the time and they were positively evangelistic about the course and the centre. Despite this, I was uneasy about leaving the world of work and having a steady income and going back into education, particularly as I hadn’t enjoyed my first degree in mechanical engineering.

As the summer of 2013 ticked by I began to think about studying at CAT again, and clicked on to the website to discover that the course was due to start in only a matter of weeks! I got the application form filled out and was pleased to find a few days later that I had been accepted onto the course. At this stage I was still unsure as to whether I was doing the right thing, but just decided to go with it and see what happened.

The view from my bedroom

As I arrived at CAT on Monday evening I had a big smile on my face thinking about the possibilities that may open up to me in the future and the new people I was about to meet. Having now completed the week I have to say that the experience has exceeded my expectations. The staff are extremely knowledgeable and passionate about their subjects and are also very approachable and I am lucky to have a great group of fellow students that I know will be a great source of support and friendship over the coming months (that is if we don’t fall out over the table tennis championship!).

I can’t imagine having the same experience at any other university running a renewable energy course as CAT is so unique in the field of sustainability. I could keep on rambling about all the other aspects of CAT, but suffice it to say for now that I know that I have made the right decision in coming here to study.

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.

Communicating the Cause

CAT is currently recruiting for some lovely long-term volunteers to join us here in mid-Wales. Are you looking to gain experience in woodland management, horticulture or marketing? CAT has five or six-month placements in these areas and we are recruiting in a rolling basis. If you are interested in applying then check out our volunteering website.

Yesterday we looked at the role of the Gardens Volunteer and the day before that it was the turn of the Water and Natural Resources Volunteers. Up today:

Media and Marketing Volunteer

Who better to discuss the role than Richard, a former Media & Marketing / ZCB Communications volunteer:

Richard, a former Media and Marketing volunteer

“I’ve always been interested in environmental issues and actually visited CAT back in the early nineties! I was a little shorter then though. So, having lived in London for almost seven years, I decided to move to mid-Wales and get involved as a long-term volunteer.

It proved to be an unforgettable but somewhat surreal experience…

I volunteered as media and marketing liaison for the Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) project. My average day, if you can call any day at CAT average, involved working closely with the ZCB researchers, meeting like-minded individuals and leaving for home with my pockets stuffed full of organic vegetables – yum! I certainly wasn’t expecting to be sharing my desk-space with an overly curious robin. It’s not something that tends to happen in an office unless you’re Doctor Doolittle, Santa Claus or Batman.

Volunteering at CAT offered a great chance to be directly involved in promoting sustainable living. I learnt so much that I never expected. This is undoubtedly because of all the different disciplines that CAT is involved with. It’s a holistic hot-pot!

A great benefit for volunteers is getting involved in the short courses that CAT runs. Taking part in the sustainable woodland management course got me hooked on learning as much as I could. So much so that I still help in CAT’s woods when I can, despite working five days a week at CAT’s visitor centre.

Donating my time for the ZCB project also exposed me to so much amazing information about climate change and energy issues. The team isn’t enclosed in a stuffy research faculty but are communicating with the public on a daily basis, be it graduate students or visitors. The team take their research seriously and working in this unique environment lends the project a strong sense of community.

It is this aspect of environmentalism that gets forgotten all too often in research: community. The change towards renewable energy can benefit local communities and if the shift can also create jobs then the transition will be a lot smoother.

When you sit down – or should that be stand up – and look at the technology that already exists, it suddenly becomes clear that a completely renewable infrastructure is not just possible, but a necessity.

CAT has a unique role to play. Why not get involved yourself? I promise the robins aren’t that bad!”

Visit the volunteering website for more information about this placement.

 

Growing in the Gardens

CAT is currently recruiting for some lovely long-term volunteers to join us here in mid-Wales. Are you looking to gain experience in woodland management, horticulture or marketing? CAT has five or six-month placements in these areas and we are recruiting in a rolling basis. We’re taking a closer look at the different roles over the next few days. If you are interested in applying then check out our volunteering website.

Yesterday we looked at the Water and Natural Resources Volunteers. Today:

Gardens Volunteer

Tending to the flowers planted to help support the bees and butterflies

Why volunteer in CAT’s gardens? Well first and foremost, because they’re one of the most important aspects of CAT. According to Roger, CAT’s main gardener, it’s the best place to be for a volunteer! By coming just before the harvesting season the new volunteer will be in time to reap the benefits of the spring and summer plantings.

Former gardens volunteer Drew had this to say about his time at CAT:

I came to CAT with very little knowledge of gardening, but with an enthusiasm to learn as much as possible. Some would say that’s a great attitude to have, but ask Roger, our Head Gardener, after a whole day of being barraged by questions from his wide-eyed, hungry for knowledge volunteers on all things horticultural and you may get a different response. He is a dedicated and passionate gardener and has been a joy to learn all things green fingered from.

As a long term volunteer you get the opportunity to immerse yourself in a way of living that is quite alien to many. The feeling of community within the surroundings of CAT and the local areas we find ourselves living in is a joy to be a part of. From sowing seeds to swing dancing, weeding in wellies to learning Welsh, pruning grapevines to preparing pot-luck dinners, it has been an incredible journey that has left me wanting more of the same. So much so that I have actually decided to lay some roots (excuse the terrible gardening pun) in Machynlleth and find work locally so that I can keep helping and learning from Roger on my days off. I also hope to get involved in a local Community Garden Project, something I would never have thought about before coming to CAT.

Visit the volunteering website for more information about this placement.

Working in the Woods

CAT is currently recruiting for some lovely long-term volunteers to join us here in mid-Wales. Are you looking to gain experience in woodland management, horticulture or marketing? CAT has five or six-month placements in these areas and we are recruiting in a rolling basis. Over the next three days we’re going to take a closer look at the different roles. If you are interested in applying then check out our volunteering website.

First up:

Water and Natural Resources Volunteers

Using a draw knife to make a traditional Welsh gate.

We’re looking for two people to work in CAT’s Water and Natural Resources department. This is a brilliant opportunity to learn about traditional coppice skills, correct tool use and care, sustainable woodland management, biodiversity survey work, land and estate management, wetlands and eco-sanitation. CAT’s woodland website has loads of further information about each of these areas.

The people we’re looking for may not necessarily have experience in this area, but they will:

  • have a genuine interest in woodland and natural resources
  • have practical skills
  • be happy to get a bit grubby
  • be flexible with an enthusiastic and positive disposition
  • be keen to learn
  • willing to complete physical work outside in all weathers

 

Iñigo, a previous volunteer had this to say about his experience: “I like being involved in the woodland and working outside, being in contact with nature through the work that we are doing and trying to preserve biodiversity. I think it’s a great experience to have and to take some skills and to develop a different view of what you can do with them, and to improve sustainability and to be a change maker in some way.”

Visit the volunteering website for more information about this placement.

Trustee Recruitment

Fancy becoming a Trustee?

We are seeking to appoint new Trustees with expertise and experience in fundraising, marketing and finance to complement and enhance the skills-base of the existing Trustee body of the Centre for Alternative Technology Charity Ltd.

Trustees attend regular Board meetings (at least quarterly) at the Centre and some are also involved in specialist sub-groups.

This is a voluntary unpaid role (as with all Trustees), but all reasonable expenses will be reimbursed.

For further information or to register an initial expression of interest, please contact Rick Dance, Company Secretary, CAT, Machynlleth, Powys, SY20 9AZ / Tel: 01654 705951 / email: rick.dance@cat.org.uk

Awydd bod yn Ymddiriedolwr?

Rydym yn awyddus i apwyntio ymddiriedolwyr newydd profiadol mewn codi arian, marchnata a materion ariannol i ychwanegu at a gwella sylfen galluoedd bwrdd ymdiredolwyr presennol Elusen y Ganolfan Dechnoleg Amgen Cyf.

Mae ymddiriedolwyr yn mynychu cyfarfodydd bwrdd yn rheolaidd (o leia yn chwarterol) yn y Ganolfan ac mae rhai yn ymgymryd â gwaith gyda is-grwpiau arbenigol.

Swydd ddi-dâl wirfoddol yw hon (fel i’r holl ymddiriedolwyr), ond ad-dalir unrhyw gostau rhesymol.

Am wybodaeth pellach neu i nodi diddordeb, cysyllter â Rick Dance, Ysgrifennydd y Cwmni, CAT, Machynlleth, Powys, SY20 9AZ / Tel: 01654 705951 / e-bost: rick.dance@cat.org.uk