Student Blog: Leanda on fine weather, form and function during the wind power module


The most recent module I studied at CAT concerned small scale, community wind power. Earlier, we’d looked at bigger wind power projects in the double wind power module.

As usual, it was a packed week, starting on Tuesday evening with Rob Gwillim leading a series of lectures on everything we could possibly want to know about small scale wind power. We learnt about site assessments, discovering which sites were most desirable and why. Then get got to grips with the technical stuff – how the power was created and fed into a grid, or stand alone network, as well as getting an overview of the mechanical workings behind the blades.

While some of the extremely clever students tried to catch Rob out with their questions, they failed miserably; I do believe that Rob knows everything about anything he lecturers on!

We were fortunate to have wind power expert Hugh Piggott as a guest lecturer. Hugh – a one-time CAT student who has written a popular book about building your own wind turbine – showed us how to design the blades. We were shown the most favourable lift/drag ratios, and then delved into the realms of stand alone (ie, not connected to the grid) wind turbines.

We learnt about the Environmental Impact Assessment process from Dr Ruth Stevenson who drew on her experience from the various projects she has worked on. We also learnt some very valuable things about public opposition to wind farms, and how to gain the community’s trust.

Our final stellar guest lecturer was Duncan Kerridge from Dulas, who told us about his involvement with community wind power developments. Duncan inspired us with his tales of working in both Wales and Zimbabwe, where his work has had an amazing positive impact – locals can now access electricity generated by a small wind turbine.

The weather was on our side during this module, so we enjoyed our breaks in the sun. The jenga blocks in the restaurant courtyard got a lot of use, though I think I played what must have been the shortest game possible! We also explored the surrounding areas, having a look at the three large wind turbines in the hills behind CAT, and visiting a 19 turbine wind farm at nearby Mynydd Gorddu.

We also did a lot of hands-on work during this module, choosing three practicals from five options. We had the option of carving a blade from wood, undertaking initial site analyses, wiring up a wind turbine to a battery and analysing the amount of energy generated, erecting a wind turbine and finally foundation design.

This module really reinforced for me how much I like wind farms. They’re so pragmatic – their form is based on their function, and they have a very sculptural aesthetic quality.

I’ve really enjoyed the modules I’ve attended. There’s definitely something for everyone, and I’ve found that this course has both awakened and sharpened my skills. And while I don’t think I’ll ever truly get to grips with Harvard referencing, I definitely feel more confident in my convictions. The conversations with fellow students continue to be a huge source of inspiration and entertainment!

I finally have a Thesis topic and need to prepare a proposal to present and hopefully get agreed during the next module I attend. Then all I have to do is research it and write it! I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Have a look at the new courses on offer in 2012…


Have you ever wanted to learn how to forge tools? Identify mushrooms? Install solar panels? Garden organically?

The Centre for Alternative Technology, which has been running courses teaching the public in all aspects of sustainable living since the late 1970s, recently released details of the courses it will be offering in 2012 in its new short courses brochure.

Alongside popular favourites such as an introduction to renewable energy systems and eco refurbishment are new courses in hedgelaying, open source tools for energy monitoring and biomass for installers, keeping CAT at the cutting edge of alternative technology education.

As well as enjoying the beautiful backdrop of Snowdonia National Park, learning at CAT offers students the opportunity to benefit from the Centre’s decades of experience in sustainable living. Course participants enjoy delicious meals from CAT’s vegetarian restaurant, and benefit from what electrician Owen describes as an “informal nature… the students and staff socialise together and become more like a band of friends than colleagues.”

Owen, who recently completed a course in solar PV installation, has found the experience hugely beneficial. “I found my skills in high demand from well-established companies,” he says, “and job opportunities were presented to me that wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t chosen to undertake the course. I’ve gone from no experience to having worked on multiple inverter brands, roof and ground mount systems, and fault finding on pre-installed systems.”

Studying at CAT was also a great experience for Ruth, a local government official. “I’ve used the knowledge gained to implement an energy plan for department,” she says. “It’ll help drive down energy waste and consumption and educate colleagues about their carbon footprint.”


Student blog: Rebecca asks ‘what is sustainable architecture?’


What is sustainable architecture? Is it an architectural movement, like modernism or brutalism? Perhaps not, as there’s no distinct aesthetic.  Is it a high rating under BREEAMLEED or CfSH? Probably not as these are designed to bring conventional design into the sustainable sphere, not as effective design tools for an already sustainable brief. Is it Passivhaus? Biomimicry? Passive Solar? Carbon sequestering? High-tech? Low-tech? A promise?

This fascinating debate centres on the undefinable definition of human sustainability, which was the underlying theme for the most recent module I studied at CAT. The essential paradox, that Peter Harper would probably call a ‘wicked question’  is that buildings are inherently bad for the environment, but necessary for civilisation.

Sustainable architecture could then be a balance between environment and civilisation, well, it will have to be; if humans had the choice between the two and not a balance, history suggests we would choose the latter, even though we know it to be counter-active as civilisation is dependent on the environment.

Another option is to eradicate the separating terminology between man and nature, such as the philosophy set by Aldo Leopold in ‘The Land Ethic’; ‘…changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it’. If this philosophy were taken, the choice above would no longer be relevant. Even so, the main question (title) remains.

The problem to me, as an architectural designer is that to produce sustainable buildings, one must take the idea ‘sustainable’ and create a physical, functioning reality. If the idea in itself is one of unknown definition, how is it possible to solidly embody it?

Biomass 30 credit module site visits – from forest to flame, and future fuels


Arthur Butler, lecturer at CAT’s Graduate School of the Environment, writes about the recent biomass module that students on the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment MSc attended.

We recently took a group of students studying on the REBE double biomass module to see several local wood-based heating installations of varying scale and running on different fuels. We also learned a bit about some research into novel biological energy sources and products. The trip helped the students gather information to inform their individual written assessed piece of work-a design feasibility report for a biomass heating system for the Plas in Machynlleth, which is a large listed building used by various community groups and local businesses.

First off, we visited a local timber and wood fuel producer. It was great seeing local fuel supply – and job creation – in action. The wood-fuel part of the business produces logs and woodchip, and we heard about the machinery and logistics involved as well as the cost and quality issues associated with supplying reliable fuel.

Next we headed to Plas Crug, a large scale biomass plant in Aberystwyth supplying heat to the Welsh Government offices and a school. We saw the size of the equipment, the backup boilers, district heating, buffer stores and talked with the facility managers about the day to day running of the plant.

Nearby, also in Aberyswyth, is CRAFT, a socially-orientated enterprise reclaiming household goods and reconditioning them for sale, while also providing employment for the local community. After moving a few years ago, they sought to make their workplace more environmentally friendly, installing a solar thermal system for hot water heating and a biomass boiler for space heating. These systems haven’t been without their complications, so it was a great opportunity for the REBE students (some of whom may become consultants, designers or installers) to hear from a client’s perspective what things can become issues.

Surprisingly, despite living nearby, I hadn’t immediately noticed the biomass boiler in CRAFT – showing that they can be clean and well-integrated in built-up areas, and make a lot of sense in rural areas with fuel available nearby. Happily, CRAFT’s problems have been straightened out with a new woodchip supplier and some assistance from heating engineers.

After CRAFT, we headed to IBERS, a biology and energy research centre at Aberyswyth University. We were shown research into biochar, pryrolysis and anaerobic digestion and heard about producing pellets for fuel from low-grade crops such as grasses – extra energy sources like these could be a valuable additional resources in the future. We saw a pellet mill, visited the labs where gas chromatography and other techniques were being used to analyse the chemical compounds present in various crops and to investigate yields.

Biomass crops may also be used to produce liquid biofuels, but there can be even more energy and land-use issues with these products. We were also told about research refining biomass sources to produce the chemical building blocks for plastic materials, or other products such as pharmaceuticals that are produced from petrochemicals at present.

On the way back to CAT we called in briefly at the Plas to let the students investigate possible locations for a new boiler installation for their reports. They had previously audited the building to assess energy demands in the buildings module, and will use those measurements to size the boilers they propose in their coursework.

The students took fuel samples from the various locations, which they’ve analysed for their reports, as well as cost and performance data. We made flue gas analyser measurements on one of the boilers, and others at CAT, to investigate emissions and efficiency. During the module we’ll be doing various biomass practicals on the CAT site too, and having lectures from academics, installers and designers, and the students will give group reports on their research into the fuel choice options, boiler system sizing and the economic aspects of the systems they propose in their coursework for the Plas building.

Student blog: Leanda on biomass wood heating


This module was the second part of double biomass. We had organised ourselves into groups, during the last module, and had work to do both individually and together towards the group presentation at the end of the week.

Part 1 was mainly about burning woody Biomass, to prepare us for the assessed work. This part was dedicated to the many other fuels that make biomass such an enormous and fascinating subject. There were a number of guest speakers who were incredibly knowledgeable about their respective fields.

Gordon Allison talked to us again, this time about liquid biofuels and the research that IBERS is doing into them. We meet him in his laboratory during the last module but this time he gave us a lecture.

Duncan Kerridge also talked to us again; this time about District Heating systems. District heating is more widely used in other countries, and has a valuable and growing role to play.

Cordner Peacocke, from CARE in Northern Ireland gave us two information packed lectures on Gasification (burning with oxygen) and Pyrolysis (burning without oxygen) with a number of real life projects that he had been involved with. This area is very much in its infancy but is very up and coming.

Judith Thornton, from the Welsh School of Architecture Cardiff, gave us a lecture on Anaerobic Digestion (AD). It was encouraging to hear that what we consider to be waste, is being used to provide energy.

Finally Andrew Boroughs from Organic Energy, gave us an inspiring lecture on Okofen pellet boilers. It was an honour to hear from someone who had very moralistic principals on how business/renewable energy should be conducted. The whole room was impressed and I know that someone enquired about possible work with his company afterwards.

It was actually quite nice to be doing a group presentation. I’m not great on presentations and it sort of took the pressure off a bit so that I could see that they aren’t as big a deal as I was making them out to be. We had to listen to all the Wind Power (the other module running in parallel) and Biomass presentations and I learnt a lot from doing that. I hope to build on this in the modules to come and reach my potential.

All week, I had been burning the midnight oil on the group presentation front. By Saturday night I made a break for freedom and spent some of the night in the local pub with fellow coursemates before returning to CAT to be confronted by party games that would make a Health & Safety Officer have a heart attack. Luckily no bones were broken and the only bruises were to egos.

One of my favourite things about this course is the people on it. You get to know them so much better than you would on a standard university course. The course is pretty intense; you spend a lot of time with each other. However, I’m lucky to be surrounded by such great people. No-one else at home would engage in conversations with me about the possibility of harnessing hamster power in a gigantic hamster wheel. Big ideas have to start somewhere!

Student Story: David on his first two months studying long-distance


Well, I did it, submitting my 1st assignment 3 days ahead of schedule. Bejeesus, it’s a miracle.

The last few months have seen heartache, passion, a neglected back garden rise up and demand my attention, a neglected partner subjected to monologues about pro-western bias in the composition of sustainability indicators, and a file full of terrifying articles from journals with names like Ecological Indicators, Environmental Economics, and (my particular favourite) Environmental Impact Assessment Review.
How did it come to this? I joined the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in 2003, at the ripe age of 32. “Once you’re here for five years, you’re unemployable anywhere else”, said one of my new colleagues. Eight years on I am doing my dream job (alas, temporary) in sustainability and climate change at DWP and hoping to prove them wrong, by distance learning with CAT.

What is studying at a distance like? Challenging. So I was prepared, my friend Christine gave me a copy of her handy little text Studying at a distance.

In mid September study material arrived from CAT. Get down to it, laddie. You need to make time, set reasonable objectives and seize those unexpected moments of free-time to study. But I made lots of false starts. Frequently I would start work early, plan to finish early and get stuck into studying, but instead get stuck at work and finish at the usual time, tired and fed up with staring at a computer screen.

I found myself putting aside big blocks of time at the weekend, allowing me to ease in gently and tackle that opening hour where you find yourself strenuously filing emails in an attempt to avoid studying. Hence the neglected garden.

Helpfully CAT provides online seminars, discussion groups, reading lists, and a very patient tutor Saskia, who reins in my highfalutin literary adventures. ‘Don’t essays have to use words like ‘fungible’ and ‘inchoate’, Saskia?’ Apparently not.

I expected fellow students to come from a range of places, but I never realised how international CAT’s reputation was! In my online seminars I found myself sitting with American volunteers in Uganda, Malaysians in Bhutan and furniture-makers in Australia. All typing our expectations of how climate change will affect buildings in our area. Hard to fit into an hour-and-a-half.

How can I describe the smell of the University of East London library? Well – I can’t, because I doubt that I will ever venture in there, but I lurrve their electronic journals. Roll out tired clichés about kids and candy stores, because each article about sustainability indicators tended to reference another 15 who in turn each referenced another 15. And they all seemed to be in Ecological Indicators. I took to thumbing, in a virtualised way, through all the copies, and after a while everything started to look relevant, interesting, or both. I sought help.

Surprisingly, we are normally encouraged to choose our own essay titles for each module. Happily for the opening module, we were given a range of possible essay titles to choose from. I went for a thorny question about measuring sustainability, because I had helped review Defra’s (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) new sustainability indicators, and had also developed tools for measuring the sustainability of DWP’s policies.

I’ve done many new and unexpected things in the past 2 months, but a particular highpoint was retreating to bed early with my netbook so I could listen to Nick Baker’s podcast, whilst my partner watched Downton Abbey downstairs. This is the good life! Ventilation and condensation beckon.