Build It Live: Getting Muddy with Self-Builders in Kent, 22nd & 23rd Feb

This weekend CAT is travelling to Kent and we are planning to get muddy. Like west Wales, Kent has had more then its fair share of mud recently, but our purpose is not related to the storms; we will be demonstrating some simple techniques for using earth in construction – making a cob wall and a pizza oven at the Build It Live Exhibition at GLOW, Bluewater.

Putting the final touches to a pizza oven

Build It Live is the ideal event for anyone who dreams of building or renovating their own home. With free seminars, access to invaluable expertise and live, interactive demonstrations such as ours, we are looking forward to a lively weekend. Visitors can talk to us about all our short courses for self-builders or any of the other services offered by CAT.

Clay rendering demonstration

One of main reasons people decide to build their own home is that they want to create something that is truly individual. Using natural building techniques, and building with earth in particular, can be an excellent way to create unique architectural forms because by its very nature, every element of earth construction will be unique in terms of colour, texture and finish. Unfired clay and sand require little energy to produce and can be sourced locally in many parts of the UK. When earth is mixed with clay, straw and water it creates cob – a lovely material to work with because it sets slowly, allowing time for experimentation, trial and error, remixing and reuse.

So that is what we will be doing. Anyone who hasn’t had enough of mud in Kent is very welcome to come along and get involved. In fact, if you are reading this blog you can have two free tickets worth £24 by following this link.

New Skills in 2014: Timber Frame Building

We have a host of exciting short courses taking place at CAT in 2014, and up until the end of January there’s 10% off! One of our most popular courses is Timber Frame Building, a five day course from 31st March to the the 4th April 2014. 

This course is for anyone interested in sustainable construction, timber buildings and building your own home. This course particularly welcomes participants from NGOs working in development, self-builders, construction teachers, individuals looking to re-skill and architects. Over the five days students will gain unique hands-on experience, underpinned by talks on the process of planning and building timber structures.

The tutors on the Timber Frame Building course  are all experts in the field: Pat Borer is an architect with over 35 years experience in designing and constructing green buildings; Duncan Roberts is Programme Leader of CAT’s Part II in Architecture and Geoff Stow built his own home in Lewisham and is part of the Association for Environment Conscious Building (AECB).

Timber Framers in 2013

The course attracts a wide range of people from diverse backgrounds such as Yotin, who came on the course with his neighbour last year to learn how to live off-grid. The two explained that “the lecturers are kick-ass, down to earth and informative” sharing their expertise with a “hands-on approach”.

At the end of the course participants understand timber frame design and are able initiate their own timber frame self-build projects.

For more information about the Timber Frame Building course visit our website.

On the 16th August there will be a new course closely linked to this one: Traditional Timber Frame Joints. The course will cover an overview of the tools and techniques used in marking and cutting joints in a series of hands-on workshop session.

Remember, we are offering a 10% on courses booked before the end of January. For terms and conditions please visit our website.

Low Carbon Living: Spiced Apple Cobbler

Using calculations being developed for Laura’s Larder, we’ve created a low-carbon Christmas feast. This week’s blog is the last of the three courses and features the low carbon dessert: Spiced Apple Cobbler. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading these blogs and have fun trying out the recipes. Look out for more Laura’s Larder/food related blogs in the New Year, but for now – Nadolig Llawen / Merry Christmas!

Spiced Apple Cobbler

Serves 8

Ingredients

1.5kg Apples
60g Sugar

2tsp Ginger

1tsp Allspice

For the topping:
210g self-raising wholemeal flour
70g margarine
35g sugar
Ice cream to serve

Method

Peel, core and chop the apples into small chunks and divide roughly into two. Place half of the apples in a pan with the sugar, spices and some water and heat until the apples begin to reduce down. Once the apples start to look a little bit like stewed apple, take them off the heat and add in the other half of the apples. Stir the mixture, making sure all of the chunks of apple are coated in the sauce. Add the mixture to your serving dish.

NB// The sugar and spices can be added in stages to suit taste preferences. (Those with a really sweet tooth may need to add more sugar!)

For the topping; add all of the ingredients into a bowl and rub in the margarine until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Add just enough water to make into a dough. Divide the dough into 8 and roll each into a ball before squashing slightly and placing on top of the apples. The topping should expand slightly when baked in the oven so leave a bit of space between each ball. Once assembled, bake in a pre-heated oven at 200C for approximately 15-20 minutes.

In order to make this dish suitable for vegans we used a margarine that did not contain any dairy products when making the topping mixture. We then served it with vegan ice cream. For the non-vegan option we served it with dairy ice cream. For those of you who have never tried a non-dairy ice-cream I would highly recommend it – it was absolutely delicious!

Low-Carbon Notes

 

Emissions relating to Spiced Apple Cobbler served with dairy ice-cream
Emissions relating to Spice Apple Cobbler served with non-dairy ice cream

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Greenhouse gas emissions of the dessert

  • The scale of this bar chart is very small. These dishes have been designed to have very low greenhouse gas emissions scores
  • All of the emissions values used are based on commercially grown produce. This means growing your own or buying locally produced ingredients could reduce emissions further still.
  • High emitters:
    • The apples contribute the most to this dish as we have used so many. When comparing foods on a per kilogram basis, apples have low associated emissions.
    • Using the same amount of dairy ice cream as vegan ice cream makes the dairy option 2 ½ times worse from a GHG emissions perspective. The non-vegan dessert, however, still has very low associated emissions meaning that, if portion sizes are sensible, dairy products can be consumed as part of a low carbon diet. The downside to this is that when you look at scaling up these results for the whole of the UK population, rather than for one person and one dish – an emissions difference of 2 ½ times begins to make more of an impact.
    • Sugar is one of the lowest emitting foods available. I would advise restricting it where you can for health benefits rather than for emissions reductions.

 

Laura’s Larder: thinking about the greenhouse gas emissions connected to our food


Nowadays, many people think about the impact their food has on the environment, as well as how healthy it is. This goes beyond transport to encompass what goes into growing, preparing and packaging – as well as shipping – the food. It’s great that we’re becoming more and more aware of these issues, but it does lead to all sorts of questions:

  • Can I eat more chicken if I don’t eat lamb?
  • If I want to keep eating sausages, can I give up something else instead?
  • Is it okay to have ‘real’ milk in my tea, if I don’t have a biscuit with it?

 

These questions reflect the fact that we all have different tastes and that we all have foods that we would potentially prefer to sacrifice over others when push comes to shove.

But, as individuals who clearly care very much about making good choices with respect to our food, what we need is more information to help us. So, what I am working on now is an application called ‘Laura’s Larder’. This application will allow anyone who is interested, to input a diet – whether an accurate reflection of their own or invented – to see what impact that this diet would have on greenhouse gas emissions and on health.

Designing an application that tailors the results to each individual means that we can begin to help answer the sorts of questions that come up when we start to think about the food choices we can make – such as those outlined above. This means that if you are interested in reducing your food related emissions, but don’t fancy an immediate switch to veganism, you can design your own approach and tailor your emissions reductions in line with your own tastes and preferences.

I hope very much that the Laura’s Larder application will provide a helpful way of showing the sorts of changes that we can start to make to our diets today and that seeing the significance that those changes can have on our emissions and on our health, and how achievable those changes can be, will encourage the first steps towards a low-carbon future, such as the one that we have laid out in the latest Zero Carbon Britain report: Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future.

The launch of Laura’s Larder is still a few months away, but we thought we would get into the spirit of it by creating a series of festive recipes in the lead-up to Christmas. These recipes are all tasty, nutritious and healthy for both us and the planet. Each week we’ll post a new recipe with a breakdown of each meal’s greenhouse gas emissions, as well as tips on how to incorporate low-carbon food into your everyday lives.

The first recipe will be posted later today.

Whose Larder?

Building on the land-use and diets part of Zero Carbon Britain, Laura Blake, a food and diets researcher at CAT, has embarked upon an exciting new project, tentatively titled ‘Laura’s Larder’. In the first of a new series of blog posts, she explains the importance of thinking holistically about our food.

“Whilst working here at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), I have been doing some research into the environmental and health implications of our diets. This work was primarily conducted as part of CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain project, but more recently I have been developing something new (more details to follow!)

My interest in food has been ongoing for many years now. I became vegetarian at a young age and, with the help of my Mum, learnt how to get all the nutrients I require from non-meat sources. This was the beginning of my interest in nutrition, which I eventually went on to study for my undergraduate degree. I then went on to do a Masters in Food Nutrition, which, combined with membership of a fair-trade society, meant I became more aware of the inequalities of our current supply system.

There are many different issues surrounding the foods we choose to eat – from the effects of the greenhouse gases (GHG) released in their production, processing and transport; to the inequality in the profits of large companies who benefit from paying producers (often overseas) next to nothing. Recently commissioned research into shoppers’ buying habits noted that sales of Fairtrade products increased by 18% last year, despite people generally spending less on their shopping. It appears that we care about issues relating to the food we eat, and when we are provided with trusted information we can make good choices that have benefits on a global level – choosing to buy fair-trade, for example, really does make a difference to people’s lives.

As I continued my work in food issues I began to realise that the effects of climate change (droughts and soaring temperatures, floods and other extreme weather events) have already begun to affect our ability to grow food. My Masters helped me understand that farmers who are already lacking access to clean water, medical supplies and facilities – as well as struggling to make enough money to buy food for themselves – may find it even harder in the future to grow their crops, making life even more difficult. But climate change will not just be a problem in other parts of the world: the effects may hit poorer farmers hardest but they will also affect our growing abilities here in the UK.

As climate change results from high levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, this makes reducing our food-related greenhouse gas emissions another important consideration when buying sustainable products – the story goes full circle.

Through my work on the Zero Carbon Britain project I was able to carry out some in-depth research into the greenhouse gas emissions associated with different types of foods that we commonly consume in the UK today. This was one of the two main focuses of research that went towards the recent publication of Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future here at CAT. It turns out that the best way we have currently of cutting emissions related to our food and agriculture is simply to choose to buy and eat different things that are lower in carbon. By looking at the greenhouse gas emissions associated with different types of foods that we commonly consume in the UK, I could come up with a diet that both met all of our nutritional requirements and significantly lowered our greenhouse gas emissions.

Throughout my time working on the ZCB project I was often asked questions such as “how much cheese could I eat if I didn’t eat beef?” or “how much chicken could I eat if I gave up lamb”. These questions reflect the fact that we clearly care very much about making good choices with respect to our food, but we don’t currently have enough information. We all have different tastes, and foods that we would potentially prefer to swap over others in order to reduce our emissions. All of these thoughts have formed the backbone of my new project, something I will tell you about in more detail in my next post!”

ZCBlog: Does coal have a role in reducing emissions?

CC. Flickr. Kentucky Photo File.

Coal use for electricity production today

Currently in the UK, around 80% of all our annual greenhouse gas emissions come from producing and using energy. Burning coal, gas and oil emits carbon dioxide (CO2) and contributes to climate change. Together, these fuels provide around 90% of the UK’s primary energy supply. Some of these fossil fuels are used directly – petrol and diesel (oil) in our vehicles for example; but some are burnt to produce the electricity we use. Although the burning of coal in fires to heat our homes directly has reduced dramatically over recent decades, we still rely on it to produce most of our electricity by burning it in power stations. If we are to play our part in tackling climate change in the UK, and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions swiftly and sharply, it is clear that our methods of energy production must change. There are many ‘lower carbon’, ‘carbon neutral’ and even ‘zero carbon’ methods of energy production that offer us better ways of producing energy, (especially electricity) in the UK.

Replacing or changing coal use in the UK?

In Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future (the report launched in July 2013 by the Zero Carbon Britain project at CAT), we opt for 100% renewable energy production – wind (onshore, and offshore), solar, hydro, geothermal, wave, tidal, and others – all ‘zero carbon’ or ‘carbon neutral’. With these, and ‘carbon neutral’ synthetic fuels, we can produce enough energy for the UK at the right times – making sure our energy demands are met at all times. In the UK today, however, high on the energy agenda is the conversion of our current coal plants to biomass (see article here about why this is a bad idea), but also about fitting current coal power stations with ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ (CCS) systems. In these plants, coal is still burnt to produce electricity, and most (but not all) of the carbon dioxide emitted is ‘captured’ before it gets into the atmosphere, and then ‘stored’, usually in old oil and gas fields under the sea or underground. This means electricity made from coal plants fitted with CCS can be classed as a ‘lower carbon’ energy source. So, why then, was there outrage from campaigners and environmentalists at the recent COP19 summit – the UNFCCC international negotiation on climate change – when the International Coal and Climate Change summit took place in Warsaw at the same time? Especially since the World Coal Association stated that the coal summit was meant as a contribution, not an alternative, to the UN talks? And why don’t we include coal and CCS in our Zero Carbon Britain scenario?

What is wrong with coal and CCS?

First of all, current standard methods of producing coal, for example mountain top removal for open cast coal mining, are extremely destructive locally and can be very dangerous. Also, coal (or any fossil fuel) power coupled with CCS does not provide a solution in the longer term. There are limits to the CO2 storage capacity of old oil and gas fields, meaning that in the longer-term they would have to be phased out entirely, and replaced by other energy production systems. Whilst it might seem sensible, or cost-effective to use the current infrastructure we have for burning coal, and simply add CCS, it is likely that this will raise the cost of coal-generated electricity, and increase the requirement for energy by at least 20%. We would have to produce far more energy to make CCS systems work, increasing our demand, potentially for coal itself. Furthermore, storage locations for the carbon captured through CCS, must be monitored indefinitely to minimise leakage. We would need to continually pay to keep the carbon safely locked away. This implies unknown costs and effective risk management long into the future, which cannot be guaranteed. And will it really be safely locked away? Whilst abrupt gas leakage events might be seriously damaging to local eco-systems (especially if the storage is underwater), diffuse leaks can be more difficult to stop and would, at least in part, reverse the effect of capturing the carbon dioxide in the first place, making it questionable whether or not coal and CCS would really provide the carbon reductions it promises.

CC. Flickr. Sidibousaid60.

Electricity is easy with renewables!

Finally, the thing that strikes us most when creating our Zero Carbon Britain scenario is that electricity – what we currently use coal to produce – is what is produced by almost all renewable sources – wind, wave, hydro, solar PV. It’s easy to produce plenty of electricity from renewables, and its much more efficient than burning coal where lots of energy is lost in the conversion process. In fact, given all the estimated resources in the UK, Zero Carbon Britain research suggests we can produce much more electricity than we require from renewable sources – even if we electrify lots of our systems like transport and heating. So, since not all the greenhouse gas (or carbon dioxide) emissions are captured from an electricity-producing coal plant, even when fitted with CCS, why opt for an electricity production method that is only ‘lower carbon’ (and is less efficient) when there are so many options that are more efficient, and truly ‘zero carbon’? Renewable electricity generation technologies offer larger and more secure greenhouse gas emission reductions. They will last us long into the future, provide jobs, and would allow us to be in control of our own energy production. The UK is blessed with great renewable resources – we are located in one of the windiest places in the world – and our future energy system should play to these strengths.

ZCB and the 21st Century Office Worker

Achieving a zero carbon world, starting right here at home with the Zero Carbon Britain initiative, requires some pretty fundamental changes to the way we live our lives. The ZCB report gives some brilliant insights into this, and as part of the project CAT asked for additional papers which would neatly complement the main report.

As someone who is passionate about the environment, because I love the natural world and all its wonders, I can see a direct link between my line of work – communications – and fundamental changes which can lead directly to significant reductions in our energy use as a nation.

Whilst the Government continues to expound the benefits of HS2 – a rail link which could prove significantly more environmentally sound than solo commutes over increasingly long distances, yet which relies for its business case upon passenger numbers and expectations of regional economic growth – I think that as a society we’re moving in a direction which will make regular business travel far less necessary for a large number of us.

I have worked on voice and ‘unified communications’ solutions for nearly 20 years, and in that time there has been a slow shift from office-based working to remote working. Businesses increasingly are happy to accept employees working from home, coffee shops, or, of course, whilst sitting on a train, because in return they get access, regardless of geography, to the employees who can perform best for them. Employees who can mix work and personal time flexibly are happier and more likely to stay with their employer in an increasingly mobile job market. Indications are that they are also more productive: certainly any amount of time reclaimed from the daily commute can always be put to better use. Not all workers can work remotely, but huge numbers of us are now office workers who, with the benefit of a good communications system, can work just as effectively at home – or elsewhere – as in the office. Gone are the days when “out of the office” meant “out of contact”: from home, given the right tools, we can talk to, see, and collaborate with our colleagues wherever they themselves may be.

So what if we went a step further: what if our government took definite steps to vastly increase home working in order to reduce the need for office space and, consequently, reduce travel, and hence congestion? How would a reduced need for office space and reduced commuting contribute to a better world for our children?

This is the topic that I explore in my paper, ‘ZCB and the 21st Century Office Worker‘.


Mike Barnes is a consultant specialising in business communications. His passion for using modern communications technology to oil the cogs of the workplace, driving information both within and between organisations, led to the publication of the book “An Infinite Number of Monkeys: A Guide to Effective Business Communications”. You can find him online at www.mike-barnes.co.uk.

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.

ZCBlog: Tobi and the Twizy

Tobi Kellner was Energy Modeller during the research phase for the latest Zero Carbon Britain report. As one of CAT’s renewable energy consultants, his work takes him to unique locations that often require unique transport options.

A few days ago I had a chance to get a first-hand experience of what rural transport in a Zero Carbon Britain future might look like. An invitation to do a talk about renewable energy options for a group of Welsh hill farmers in the Brecon Beacons brought a bit of a dilemma for me: The event was to be held at a very eco-conscious remote hill farm and B&B with working biomass boilers, hydro turbine and solar panels – a great place, but almost impossible to reach by public transport! This is the all-too-familiar dilemma for the environmentalist working in a rural area: can you justify using a car to promote a fossil fuel free future? Fortunately, in this case there was a better option: a combination of train and electric car!

Tobi preparing for his journey.

The Eco Travel Network offers visitors to the Brecon Beacon area the opportunity to rent one of six funky little Renault Twizy electric cars to get around. So I decided to give it a try, booked a train ticket to Abergavenny and arranged to pick up the Twizy from a local hotel there (for a charge of £45). It has to be said that if the aim of the scheme is to convince people that electric cars can be ‘just as good’ as petrol guzzlers then the Twizy is probably not the best choice of vehicle. Described as an “urban compact two-seater” without windows to protect you from the Welsh rain (zip-on windows are available as extras), this is not a ‘grown up’ electric vehicle. But at around £7,000 (plus £45/month battery rental and road side assistance), this is a (relatively) cheap and cheerful transport option, and it’s great fun to use!

On the way to the talk.

The 6kWh of lithium ion batteries store less energy than a single litre of petrol, but due to the efficiency of electric motors that gives you around a 50 mile range (though maybe a bit less in the steep hills of the Brecon Beacons), and it very rapidly accelerates up to 50mph, great fun overtaking tractors! What’s more, whereas normal cars ‘destroy’ energy when you break, this one actually puts the power back into the batteries, so you recharge when you’re going downhill. At the end of your journey you just plug the vehicle into any normal three pin plug (no special charging points required for the Twizy) and it recharges in a few hours.

Charging the Twizy.

As the vast majority of all daily journeys are less than 50 miles the battery range shouldn’t be much of a problem. But if you need to go a bit further then you can always do what I did: pull in at a local pub, get them to throw an electric extension cord out the window so you can plug in, have yourself a nice cup of tea while both you and your vehicle re-energize. Electric cars charged with renewable electricity are a great zero-carbon transport option for remote rural where public transport isn’t available, and I definitely enjoyed my glimpse of the future or rural transport!