Interview: Colin’s taken his skills into research and development

Colin Jones studied on the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment programme at CAT from 2010 to 2014. This week he has been back helping to run a practical with current students on PV flash testing. We took the opportunity to catch up with him about his experience of the course and what he has gone on to do since graduation.

Colin Jones, Ex-Student

What first convinced you to study the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment course?

I first came to CAT is 2007 when I did a Solar Photovoltaic (PV) installers course. I met Stuart (the programme leader) who told me about this new course they were launching. I joined the following year.

I didn’t have a degree previously, but they accepted me onto the course on the basis of my previous experience. I had my own electrical engineering company and we had been working on a lot of residential solar installations since the feed in tariff was introduced.

I was particularly attracted to the practical bias of the course at CAT. I also liked the idea of the modular structure, where each module included intensive residential weeks.

How has doing the course impacted on your career?

Half way through the course I got a job with Carillion Energy working as a project manager on commercial, medium scale, PV projects. These were larger and more complex projects than I had previously been working on, and it gave me a chance to put into practice all I had learned on the PV module of the course. I’m sure I was offered the job because of being on the Renewable Energy course. I also still had my own company, so that was doing the residential installations whilst I was working on the commercial projects with Carillion Energy.

12 months ago, after completing the course, I got a new job working for Tharsus. Tharsus is an engineering company that is researching and developing new technology. My job is not just to do with renewable energy now; I look at automation and processes more generally. Having said that, we do have some work to do with renewable energy products, particularly in energy storage.

Although I am not always working directly on renewable energy systems now, the skills I learned from the MSc course are definitely still useful. In particular, the skills around data collection and processing that I learned on the course. I use these skills all the time.

Find out more about studying MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment

Interview: Elgan’s developing new renewable energy projects across the UK

profile Elgan Roberts

Elgan Roberts has been studying on the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment course part time since 2012. He is half way through writing his thesis, which seems like a good time to look back on the course and the impact it is having on his career.

profile Elgan Roberts
Elgan Roberts – Renewable Energy Student

What impact has studying MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment had on your career?

My background was in mechanical engineering. I graduated in 2002 and then worked in the agricultural industry for seven years until 2009. At that point I wanted to move back to Wales, where I am from, and I was also interested in getting into renewable energy.

I managed to get a job with a small wind installation company in Bangor doing feasibility studies and project management. I decided to do an MSc alongside working to allow me to advance in my career.

About six months after starting the course I got a new job with a bigger national company called Carter Jonas. In this company I was able to work on larger scale projects, and more of a range of projects involving hydro, solar, wind and biomass. I wouldn’t have got this job without being on the course. Working in a bigger company has allowed me to expand my career. I’m directly using the skills I gained on the course in my work

Why did you decide to do the MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment course at CAT?

I looked at it originally because it was at a convenient location near to Bangor. What I particularly liked about it was the good mix of face to face and distance learning. Studying through 5-night blocks meant I could do the course without missing much work, and it didn’t really impact on my employers. I came to an open day and I was really impressed with the teachers and facilities.

How was the experience of the course for you?

One of the things I have most appreciated whilst being on the course is that the small numbers of students means you get plenty of time with the lecturers to look at things in detail

I have definitely enjoyed the course, although it is hard work if you are studying alongside working full time. There are a good bunch of people on the course, and you spend all your time with them during the on site attendances. A week at a time is a good amount of time to spend with people. I’ve made some great friends who I will certainly stay in touch with.

MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment – More Information

Taster Open Days at the Graduate School of the Environment

Come along to one of our taster open days to find out more about the environmental masters courses on offer at the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Graduate School of the Environment. You must pre-book, but these open days offer a great chance to get a flavour of the practical, innovative courses we offer and find out if one might be right for you.

Upcoming open day dates

Wednesday 11th February

Wednesday 11th March

Wednesday 15th April

Open Day Programme

11:00 – 4:30 (free and includes lunch),

Wednesday taster days take place during the masters in sustainability and adaptation modules each month and give you the chance to come along to CAT meet some existing students, speak to lecturers and decide which environmental masters degree at CAT is most suitable for you.

  • Have a tour of the Centre, including accommodation and teaching facilities
  • Meet current students
  • Meet tutors on the courses
  • Experience a taster lecture

Students interested in Renewable Energy and the Built Environment can also visit on these open days. You will be able to meet a tutor from your course, see the facilities and get your questions answered.

Optional overnight stay

The open day is free but there is an option to stay overnight until Thursday morning. The overnight stay is offered at the subsidised rate of £25 including accommodation in a shared student room, dinner and breakfast. This is a great chance to have a more relaxed time at the centre and experience a few more lectures or practical sessions, and hear from other students.

Booking

To book a place please email Kit Jones gsmo@cat.org.uk now, or at least one week before the open day.

The sun shines on Mynydd Gorddu Windfarm.

The sun shines on Mynydd Gorddu Windfarm.

 

A REBE trip to Myn ydd Gorddu Windfarm.
A REBE trip to Myn ydd Gorddu Windfarm.

 

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.

 

IMG_9713     IMG_9722_1

 

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.

 

Myn ydd Gorddu Windfarm
Myn ydd Gorddu Windfarm

 

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.

 

IMG_9818IMG_9834REBE Students taken notes about the Mynydd Gorddu windfarm.

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.

 

the wind blows us back to

IMG_9840

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;

 

An interview with REBE student Alexandra King.
An interview with REBE student Alexandra King.

 

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.”

 

Many thanks Alexandra !

 

 

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

site

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.

 

site
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.

Meet the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment students….

REBE Student Interview

MEET the new REBE’s ! (Renewable Energy in the Built Environment) Students…

Dashing between lectures, I managed to catch a quick word with some of the people studying on the MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment masters at CAT. Who are they, why did they come and what do they want?

Charming and professional it seemed like they were in thinking mode and it was only by the skin on my teeth that I (a media and marketing volunteer) managed to meet these lovely people on a mission. Lets hear what they had to say…

REBE Student Interview
Charlotte

Name: CHARLOTTE NORTON.

What motivated you to do this MSc?

“I wanted to learn more about different renewable energy technologies, and so this seemed the right course for me. A colleague of mine did the course a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I came up to look around a couple of times and was really impressed by the enthusiasm and commitment from staff”

What were you doing before you came?

“Well I did and still do work full time for  a medium sized wind turbine consultancy in Swansea, called Seren Energy”.

What do you feel you are getting from the course?

“I am getting hands on practical skills and knowledge from people who work in the industry”.

What has the most interesting thing that you’ve learnt about since doing the course?

“Everything, All of it! Its too hard to choose as everything has been very relevant and interesting”.

How do you find the course structure/ teaching?

“Brilliant! But intense… Its a lot of work since I am working full time”.

 

REBE MSc student and Electrical Design Consultant for Atkins.
Nick

Name: NICK STOLFA. 

Occupation: REBE MSc student and Electrical Design Consultant for Atkins.

What motivated you to come on the course?

“I wanted to continue progressing in this field, following completion of an undergraduate degree in renewable energy. More specifically, I felt the practical aspects of the REBE course would help to solidify my academic knowledge”.

What do you feel you are getting from the course?

“Practical experience combined with new academic knowledge; it’s really interesting learning from people who not only teach, but also work within the renewable energy industry. They know their stuff!”

What is the most interesting thing you have learnt about so far?

“Learning about Passivhaus was especially interesting, with the practical we did in the self-build really bringing the concepts to life”.

What do you hope to do with your MSc after the course?

“I intend to apply for profession registration with the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET). Following this I would ideally like to complete a doctorate, hopefully based on the dissertation I do as part this MSc”.

How do you find the course structure/ teaching?

“The first week was a bit of a shock, as its quite an intensive schedule, but I have got used to it now. The teaching is of a high standard and I certainly feel I’m getting my moneys worth!”

Would you’d change anything?

“I wouldn’t mind a bit more time to recap on lecture notes, as there really is a lot to take in. So maybe an additional free period would be helpful”.

 

Eco Refurbishment course teaches practical skills to do it yourself

Our popular eco-refurbishment course this month brought together a team of people keen to learn about improving buildings in a sustainable way. Some on the course wanted to make improvements to their homes, others were builders taking the course as part of their professional development. The course was led by Nick Parsons, who has worked for over 25 years in renewable energy, sustainable building and eco-retrofit.

Applying a lime render to insulating boards

This is a really practical course, ideal for anyone who is planning to refurbish an existing building with minimal environmental impact. There were sessions on solid wall insulation, roof insulation, renewable energy, energy efficiency, heat loss, damp, breathability and ecological materials.

roof insulation eco retrofit
The group worked well together. Here are some of the students observing a roof rig demonstration.

The students really appreciated the course:

“Nick was very knowledgable and pragmatic – and he had a great sense of humour!”

“Can I thank yourself and all the staff at CAT for the warm welcome, smiles and hospitality. Everyone enjoyed the Eco Refurb course immensely and I will certainly be looking at additional courses in the future.”

eco renovation course
The course involved a mix of theoretical and practical sessions

We would like to say a big thank-you to Natural Building Technologies, Recovery Insulation and Clan Insulation, who provided materials for the practical sessions on the Eco Refurbishment course. Thanks also to Green Building Press who donated copies of The Green Building Bible for the students. Being able to experience a range of materials made a real difference.

insulation course
A practical session looking at roof insulation

The course will be run again next year. Keep an eye on the short courses calendar to see when the dates are announced. Other related short courses include Straw Bale Building 6th-10th October 2014, Wind Power Systems 18-23rd November and an Introduction to Permaculture 20th-22nd February 2015.

Cooperative housing and low carbon research – lessons from the US

Low carbon renewable energy strategies

This is the fifth instalment in a series of blogs by Paul Allen as he travels across the USA talking with numerous grassroots groups about CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research project. The first blog explains the purpose of the trip and the second blog details his time in Boston, in the third blog Paul was in Ohio and for the fourth he was in Utah. Now Paul is in San Francisco, where he visits Stanford University and the ‘Magic’ Community. 

Visiting Stanford University

My research stop in San Francisco’s Bay Area began with a visit to Professor Mark Jacobson at his office at Stanford University in Palo Alto. Mark’s innovative modelling work had originally inspired my trip; initially he developed a robust academic scenario exploring how world energy demands could be met from renewable energy sources. The interest around this work, from journals such as Scientific American led to much more detailed modelling to create ‘50 plans for 50 States’ across the US showing how each could be powered from 100% renewable energy by 2050.

I spent the morning excitedly sharing notes with Mark in his office at the interdisciplinary Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building or ‘Y2E2’ for short. This is the brand new hub for environmental problem solving forms the heart of Stanford’s Initiative on the Environment and Sustainability, linking expertise in “sustainable built systems”, “climate and energy systems”, “oceans and estuaries”, “fresh water”, “energy”, and “land use and conservation”. The building also accommodates researchers from biology, law, medicine, education, anthropology, and economics, as well as civil engineering and Earth systems science. Clearly one of the “greenest” building on the Stanford University Campus, Y2E2 utilises the latest thinking from Arup in energy and water management. Its ‘Coupa Café’ features the best single estate, certified organic and fair trade coffee on Campus to ensure the different disciplines are attracted to this space to cross-fertilise.

Zero Carbon Britain and The Solutions Project

We explored origins of our work, and how it is used, perhaps the key aspect was our approach to the research funding – we both ensured our research was free from corporate funding, to give confidence in its independence to those who use it. Mark offered his insights into Zero Carbon Britain, and compared our communications work with that of ‘the Solutions Project’ that is rapidly emerging around his modelling. The Solutions Project arose in June 2011 when he was meeting with actor Mark Ruffalo, banker Marco Krapels and filmmaker Josh Fox to discuss how they could collaborate around their opposition to extreme energy extraction technologies such as fracking. Their conversation sparked an important realization – it wasn’t enough for them to be against something. They needed to be part of the solution. That prompted them to create a project that can harness the powerful combination of science, business and culture to catalyse the transition to 100% clean, renewable energy – and in the process change how we think about the future. To help me get a better understanding of their communications strategy, Mark set up a meeting for me with the solutions projects communications expert Jon Wank to share ideas on how we can make the findings of this research accessible to those who will use it.

The overwhelming core of our research methodology and findings were very similar. They key technical differences between our scenarios include the following:

  • Mark’s work has a major emphasis on the reduction of the human cost and economic cost of clearer air quality, and so shies away from using any synthetic liquid or gas fuels.
  • His 100% renewable scenarios do not include the significant methane emissions from agriculture and so do not aim to get to net zero emissions.
  • Mark’s scenarios have a target of 100% renewable energy by 2050, rather than 2030, although he stated that he felt it would be technically achievable by 2030, but that would be too fast a cultural shift for the US
  • My meeting with Mark made it very clear to me that our Zero Carbon Britain communications plans should not be modest in their ambitions. Despite much stronger anti-climate change misinformation in the US, the solutions project has attracted the support of a wide range of key celebrities such as Leonardo Di Caprio, made mainstream TV interviews such as the David Letterman Show (US equivalent of Michael Parkinson), and has attracted significant funding support.
Housing Cooperative Zero Carbon Britain Paul Allen San Francisco
Paul and Mark at Stanford University

Economics are a big part of the solutions project – they have already enrolled expert Marco Krapels and aim to show how this transition makes economic sense for all of us. Mark’s next area of research is to show how global renewable resources may change as the effects of climate change begin to be felt around the world, and the role offshore wind can have in storm mitigation and well as in emissions reduction.

Low carbon renewable energy strategies
50 States: 50 Plans. The Solutions Project

Whilst at Stanford, Mark had also requested that I make a Zero Carbon Britain presentation to his students on the Atmosphere/Energy Seminar programme, so they can see our perspectives on both the modelling and communications. This is also a good way for me to find new contacts for further meetings and investigation. After the lecture, Stanford provided lunch in the Coupa Café so I could spend time talking with the students. On of the students Aniket was particularly taken by my approach and arranged an invitation to Stanford’s Value-science living laboratory – the ‘Magic Community’ in Palo Alto.

The ‘Magic Community’ and ‘Valuescience’ – living our values

I accepted the invitation, the ‘Magic’ community is a living laboratory for Stanford University, it literally provides a home for people learning and communicating how humans can further ‘common good’ by practicing ‘valuescience’ i.e. scientific methods and principles applied to questions of value. I immediately felt at home, it reminded me of the CAT on-site community and of my time living at the Undergrowth Housing Cooperative that grew out of CAT in the mid 1980s.

Their aim is to maximise human wellbeing whilst also reducing their negative impacts. As we shared the most healthy looking salad and fresh vegetable meal I had seen since arriving in the US, I spent time talking with David, Hillary and Robin who form the core group of fellows, each with a tenure of more than fifteen years, and between them they shoulder primary responsibility for operating Magic. They work with several dozen associates and affiliates, including about a dozen who actually live in the Magic residential service learning community. A board of directors oversees the healthy functioning of Magic and they also draw upon support from a board of advisors. Each year hundreds of volunteers, donors, clients, and program participants contribute labour, material, money, and advocacy to make Magic happen.

I explored further what they mean by ‘valuescience’. Basically it is an approach for getting control of your life, so you can consciously make the best choices available, both for yourself and your environment – and can both learn from your mistakes and predict what might work in the future. They were excited to explain that it uses science principals to explore issues of human wellbeing and how this is influenced by lifestyle choices and the values sets that underpins them. They recognise that everyone practices ‘valuescience’ to some degree, although few of us do so consciously, all of us tap only a fraction of its potential, and so we suffer as a result of relying sometimes on choices subliminally biased by commercial interests. Clearly both Magic and its residents were thriving – at a location in which normal ‘nuclear family’ style residential living costs were unbelievable high! They had just completed the construction of an additional brand new super energy efficient residential unit with loads of communal space and two grand pianos! The findings from their ‘valuescience’ research forms part of the academic teaching at Stanford. But the essence of Magic is in a residential service-learning community so that we may better “walk our talk”. They describe their outlook in Thoreau’s words, “What you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear a word you say.” The evening ended with acoustic guitar and fiddle music ringing around the table, and I caught the very efficient ‘Caltrain’ on to San Francisco with feeling fond comparisons to the CAT on-site community.

 

Should we all be using heat pumps?

Tobi Kellner
Tobi Kellner

 

This morning CAT Renewable Energy lecturer and researcher Tobi Kellner has been on the BBC Breakfast Programme, the Today Programme and BBC News talking about heat pumps. The National Trust is installing water source heat pumps in Plas Newydd and Tobi commented on whether these could be something that was rolled out across the UK, and what the environmental impact of that would be. Tobi expands on what the potential for heat pumps is for householders, and the UK generally.  

 

 

Heat pumps advice for householders

In my role as renewable energy consultant – and when I worked for CAT’s free Information Service – I often talk to householders who are enthusiastic about renewable energy and want to install a heat pump. However, I generally advise against installing heat pumps in typical UK properties – buildings heated by a gas boiler that is connected to normal radiators. Results from field trials suggest that under these conditions heat pumps typically achieve seasonal performance factors of between 2.0 and 2.5 – that means they supply between 2.0 and 2.5 units of heat for every unit of electricity they consume. That sounds impressive – “up to 250% efficiency”, as some sales brochures would put it. But at the moment most of our electricity is still produced by very inefficient fossil fuel power stations. For example, a coal power station needs three units of heat from coal to produce a unit of electricity. If you now use that unit of electricity to power a heat pump that delivers two units of heat to a building then you’d actually be better off burning coal directly! Our calculations suggest that for existing homes which are on the mains gas grid heat pumps have no significant advantage in terms of money or carbon emissions – much better idea to invest money in improving insulation or maybe installing a solar roof.

An air-source heat pump at CAT

On the other hand, I also advise people who want to build new homes, and here heat pumps can often be a great choice: If you build to a very high standard of energy efficiency (as any new building should be!) and if you design a heating system that can run at fairly low temperatures (for example, underfloor heating with densely spaced pipes can run at 35°C whereas radiators may need 70°C) then heat pumps can be an excellent choice.

Heat pumps in the Graduate School of the Environment

As a lecturer in CAT’s Graduate School of the Environment, I currently supervise a student carrying out research into heat pumps for his M.Sc. thesis. Having wired up his own heat pump and house with sensors and data loggers over the last winter, the student built a computer model that allows him to answer questions such as Would the heat pump be able to supply enough heat during a cold winter if it only operates during times of low electricity demand?
Answering question of this type is crucial for our transformation to a renewably powered future, and it’s great to see that our students are taking a lead!

CAT outside Parliament
Tobi and the ZCB team outside parliament

Heat pumps in Zero Carbon Britain

In our Zero Carbon Britain scenario, heat pumps play a central role. When we looked at how we could supply 100% of our energy from UK-based renewables, we noticed two things: First, wind turbines will play a central role in our energy supply as the UK has a fantastic wind resource. And second, even though we assume that in ZCB our buildings will be much better insulated than today, we will still need a lot of heat energy to keep us warm. And in many ways, wind turbines and heat pumps are “a match made in heaven”. On average, we have more wind power in winter when we need more heat (though there are of course periods when it is cold but calm), so there’s a nice match between supply and demand. And heat pumps can even help us deal with variability from renewable electricity sources. You wouldn’t want your lights to go dim whenever the wind blows a bit less. But heat is very easy to store – in the form of hot water, or even in the ‘thermal mass’ of the bricks & mortar of our homes. So you can easily imagine a future where your heat pump works harder at times when there is plenty of wind and little demand (e.g. during a windy night) and stop working during times of peak demand or low renewable energy supply. Our research suggests this could play a significant role in powering future energy supplies, without any impact on comfort. For more information on the role of heat pumps in Zero Carbon Britain, download the report here.

 

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.

IMAG0411
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.