ZCBlog: Volunteering for a sustainable future!

Volunteers are extremely important to the Zero Carbon Britain project. As the research nears completion the long-term volunteers are beginning to look at how best to communicate ZCB to the people that will have to embrace a sustainable future: the public.

Two new long-term volunteers, Sarah and Megan, are working hard to support CAT and the ZCB team in both research and communications.

Sarah Everitt has been working with the ZCB team for a few weeks now. She is enthusiastic about making an important contribution to a project that has the potential to vastly benefit not only the UK environment, but the global climate too.

At the moment, now that the research is coming to a close, she is working to improve the report’s structure. Sarah is putting together a template that can improve accessibility of the new report to a wider audience. This is not such an easy task, with a scenario covering a variety of topics and  complex research data, but key to communicating ZCB to the general public.

Megan Jones joined the CAT team last week from the Isle of Anglesey, Wales, where for the last three months she has been a Residential Volunteer for the RSPB at South Stack Cliffs. She came back to Britain last autumn after finishing a BA in English at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, USA.

“Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved exploring woods and mountains (so mid-Wales is pretty perfect for me), and I’m hoping to make a career inspiring others to love nature and protect biodiversity. I’m very much looking forward to being a long-term volunteer at CAT, where I’ll be sharing CAT’s stories through social media, gaining new skills in marketing, and helping bring the new Zero Carbon Britain report to fruition.”

The Centre for Alternative Technology’s achievements over the last 40 years simply wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work, inspiration and dedication of the volunteers. With Nuria leaving at the end of February and a new volunteer starting in the coming month, ZCB’s volunteers have been invaluable to the evolution of the project.

Both Megan and Sarah are helping to co-ordinate a series of discussion papers titled ‘ZCB and…’ These will explore how the Zero Carbon Britain scenario effects wider topics beyond the team’s core research. Read more about the project here.

Photo: in the woods


This week we’ve had the assistance of some wonderful volunteers in our woodland, Coed Gwern.

CAT currently manages twenty acres of woodland spread across the main site and at Coed Gwern, an idyllic sustainably-managed deciduous woodland. The woodlands are a range of different ages and include coppice, mature broadleaf and conifer, with a mosaic of diverse microclimates and ecosystems.

Rob, our natural resources co-ordinator, says

The volunteers are fundamental to the success of our work and help preserve and enhance the extraordinary range of biodiversity that is part of west Wales’ unique ecosystem.

Thanks to the volunteers for their help!

Long-term Volunteers at CAT


Long-term volunteers are extremely important to CAT. They bring fresh perspectives to our work as well as new energy and community spirit. Our current long-term volunteers are here throughout the winter and into the spring and there are still spaces available. Here are some examples of the bright and impassioned volunteers we currently have on-site:

Rob Turner is volunteering for site maintenance. He studied engineering before deciding to come to CAT. It was the focus on hands-on learning and practical training that persuaded him to give his time to CAT. His long-term goal is to get into environmental learning and he hopes to take advantage of the knowledge from the course lectures and staff here at CAT. He has also been impressed by the sense of responsibility that the role affords him.

Recently he has been assisting the estates team in building the biomass facility at CAT, which has just been approved by HETAS for use on their Biomass Installers course. It will be a great asset to both the visitor centre and the courses department.

Niki Watling is one of the volunteers helping Roger with on-site gardening. Niki says that a long-term volunteer placement at CAT seemed like the obvious choice for her. It is somewhere she can learn the practical skills to live more sustainably. Niki hopes to live a completely self-sustainable lifestyle in the future. She is passionate about being outside, which is why she has always enjoyed gardening. Niki has only been volunteering for six weeks but already the skills Roger has passed on to her have exceeded her expectations.

Before coming to CAT, Josh Cooke finished a MEng (hons) in Chemical Engineering at Bath University. Though originally from Pembrokeshire, Josh knew that CAT was the right place for him from day one. The great thing about being at CAT, Josh says, is that you never have an average day. His week includes everything from monitoring water levels in the reservoir, surveying the Biodiversity on-site and assisting tours for visiting schools.

During the course of his university studies, Josh started to focus more and more on sustainable water treatment and has been able to put this knowledge to practical use here at CAT. However, his primary reason for volunteering at CAT was to learn more about woodland management. His supervisors, Adam Thorogood and Rob Goodsell have been more than eager to pass on their skills in this area. Josh is also looking forward to helping with the upcoming Woodland and Biodiversity volunteer week on 5th – 9th November. There are other perks too, as Josh explains…

“While I understand that it’s not for everyone, I love it here. I even enjoyed being up to my knees in poo recently but you do need a strong stomach!”

The unique approach at CAT means that volunteers can experience pretty much any department. As well as this every volunteer has the chance to participate in two of CAT’s short-courses. So if you are interested in joining CAT as a long-term volunteer, you can find more information here.


Fantastic opportunity for volunteers at CAT’s Woodland and Biodiversity week


The Centre for Alternative Technology is offering the chance for five volunteers to spend a week assisting our Woodland and Biodiversity team. Taking place from the 5th – 9th November, participants have the option to stay on site within beautiful surroundings near Machynlleth at the heart of Wales.

The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) has a strong commitment to the preservation of the environment and enhancing biodiversity. CAT currently manages twenty acres of woodland spread across the main site and at Coed Gwern, an idyllic sustainably-managed deciduous woodland. The woodlands are a range of different ages and include coppice, mature broadleaf and conifer, with a mosaic of diverse microclimates and ecosystems.

November’s Woodland and Biodiversity week will be overseen by Rob Goodsell and Adam Thorogood, CAT’s biology team. Volunteers will be working with Rob and Adam to practice woodland management skills across the site, including thinning, invasive species control and formative pruning. Participants will learn the safe use and maintenance of hand tools. There will also be the opportunity to survey and maintain CAT’s bird monitoring programme.

“The volunteers are fundamental to the success of our work and help preserve and enhance the extraordinary range of biodiversity that is part of west Wales’ unique ecosystem” – Rob Goodsell, Natural Resources Co-Ordinator

For £120 the week includes full-board accommodation in a shared bunkhouse. This one-off opportunity is limited to five spaces, so booking early is recommended. As the work may be physically demanding and will require working in all weather conditions volunteers are advised to bring waterproofs and boots.

The week will be free to attend if you do not require accommodation. Lunch will be provided.

If you would like to join us for this fantastic opportunity then contact us by telephone on 01654 705955 or by email at adam.thorogood@cat.org.uk. If you would like to learn more about our commitment to woodland management then please visit CAT’s website.

Student story: Becca on climate adaption and mitigation


Former CAT MSc student and engineering volunteer Becca Warren writes about public speaking, building a shed on the roof of Manchester University, and working as a low carbon generation consultant.

This year I’ll be presenting at Greenbuild on ‘Climate Adaptation and Mitigation.’ Greenbuild is Manchester’s answer to Ecobuild – less celebrities, so no Kevin McCloud or Brian Cox, and a smaller exhibition but a great line up of presentations and workshops and a great event to present at. I did half an hour on the subject ‘What Will a Low Carbon Manchester Look Like?’ last year and had people standing three deep at the back by the time I had finished and so feel under pressure to do at least as good a job this year.

Given my public speaking abilities when I started an MSc at CAT in 2007 it’s remarkable that I’m not only able to do this but actually looking forward to it. My first presentation on the course – a short ten minutes on my first assignment about the use of natural ventilation in large buildings was an unmitigated disaster – I put too much information in, in a storyline which didn’t follow itself, didn’t practise it enough and stumbled and stuttered my way through what felt more like ten hours. Rob, our course leader, looked at me sympathetically on the way out and said “It’s not easy is it?”

My brain woke me up two days later, at two in the morning with a brilliant presentation on the same subject, delivered in a dynamic, Johnny Ball in ‘Think-of-a-number’ style, which would have involved sawing a cardboard box in half, remote control cars and audience participation. It received standing ovations in my imagination and gave me insomnia for three nights. I still think it would be great but have never got the opportunity to deliver it. I have, however, presented on a number of topics to a lot of different audiences – general renewables to festival go-ers at the Big Green Gathering, wind power to school children, BREEAM to landscape architects, district energy to university students and district heating to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (they were a tough crowd).

I went into building services with a small engineering consultancy just after starting the course. We merged a year later with a much bigger company which has given me some great opportunities, not least by providing funding for my thesis experiment which involved building a shed on the roof of Manchester University and giving me a month off when I won a travel bursary in 2010 to go cycling round Northern Europe looking at community energy. Having spent the summer of 2007 volunteering at CAT with the engineering department and done a bit of building services early in my career (I’m talking a couple of summer jobs nearly twenty years ago) I had a blagger’s guide to the subject but no more. It’s been a steep learning curve, alongside the learning curve of the course after a nearly two decades out of academia but I’ve been lucky to have a great support network of my colleagues, course tutors and fellow students and the wider CAT network. It constantly delights me how many people have studied there or visited and what an inspiration it has been to so many people. It has certainly served me well so far – if I had chosen to do the course out of purely selfish reasons of job security and financial gain I couldn’t have picked much better. My actual desires to do something worthwhile, to work with good people and to have adventures have also been satisfied.

But anyway, back to Climate Adaptation and Mitigation. It’s a massive subject and has a number of different angles. I’ve been interested in it since reading ‘Six Degrees: Our future on a hotter planet’ (London: Fourth Estate, 2007) – Mark Lynas’s terrifying analysis of what each of the potential rises of global temperature might look like. Basically after three degrees feedback mechanisms make the remaining increases pretty damn likely – ending up with six degrees and a fire-storm ravaged planet on which only the hardiest of bacteria can survive. Grim stuff and hardly likely to inspire anyone to be a bit more energy efficient, holiday closer to home and build resilient communities – more likely to make people want to get drunk and party before we run out of time! (although I guess if they did it on home brew, with the lights off that would be a result of sorts). So whilst I will touch on this I’m going to focus on the (still entirely achievable) rise of 2 degrees and what that might look like.

There’s still some scary stuff like the water shortages throughout the Mediterranean which will surely see increases in population further north as people migrate to more hospitable climates and all the attendant challenges that can bring, and increased extreme weather events with hotter drier summers and more frequent floods in winter. But there are reasons for optimism too. Many of the adaptation measures will also enhance our quality of life. Greener public realms and green roof projects to provide shade and reduce heat islanding can improve biodiversity and create wildlife corridors through our urban areas. A focus on more localised and increasingly organic food production for food security and to reduce costs and emissions from transport and fertilisers will give us a seasonal diet once again and open the way for community based agriculture projects. We will need to address energy and waste on a local scale and whilst this is a huge challenge there are plenty of living projects, both here in the UK and further afield, from which we can learn. This is the story I want to tell. So – having procrastinated by writing this, instead of the presentation for long enough I’m ready to start on the real thing.
Becca Warren started the MSc in Renewable Energy in the Built Environment at CAT in Sept 2007 and graduated in 2011. She works for Sinclair Knight Merz in Manchester as a low carbon generation consultant and is prepared to do public speaking in return for free biscuits. In 2010 she blogged about her travels in Northern Europe at www.kendale2010.blogspot.co.

Gardening Blog: frosty earth and successful compost


This week in the gardens, we’ve been admiring how beautiful the site looks covered in frost. Although the hard frost has hit many of the early flowering plants, hardier ones like greater periwinkle recover well. Surprisingly, some vegetables, like brussel sprouts, parsnips and purple sprouting broccoli are said to taste better after a frost.

We also turned the compost. Turning the compost is something we try to do at least monthly at CAT to speed up the composting process by increasing aeration of the compost which keeps the heat up to kill off the weeds.

Gardening Blog: toads and apple trees


This week in the gardens, we found a hibernating toad when weeding. The toad had been sitting underneath a pair of discarded gardening gloves, and was quickly re-homed in the polytunnel. We put him in a secluded spot near the pond, and built him a handy ramp so he could get to the water easily. Earlier in the week resident naturalist Rennie found a toad in a woodpile – read his blog about toads here.

We also pruned the apple trees in the orchard. CAT has over 50 fruit trees, planted some 20 years ago. It’s necessary to prune in summer and in winter – in summer to encourage fruiting, in winter to encourage growth. Pruning in winter can be better for the plant as the sap is low, and there’s subsequently less risk of infection.


CAT long term volunteers give an insight into what it’s like volunteering


This March, a new group of volunteers will start at CAT, staying until September. We asked two current volunteers, Laurie and Thomas, about their experience of being here.

If you’re interested in applying, check out this page. Applications need to be in by the 11th of December.

Laurie has been volunteering in engineering for nearly three months. Having recently finished a BEng in environmental engineering which focused mainly on water and waste, Laurie wanted to extend his knowledge of renewable technologies, and sustainable living in general. Interested in the potential of transforming urban environments into eco cities, Laurie saw CAT as a good place to learn about the infrastructure needed and practicalities involved.

As a volunteer in the engineering department, Laurie’s days are varied, involving checking the water level in the reservoir, operating the hydro turbine, reading meters, keeping the wood pellet burner topped up, plumbing, and much more. One of the constants of Laurie’s workload is fixing the hydro turbine at the bottom station.

Volunteering at CAT is a “full-on social experience,” according to Laurie. There’s plenty to do, from football to drumming. The diversity of the CAT community has been important to Laurie, as lunchtimes see Laurie and other volunteers mix with biologists, gardeners, researchers and other staff. Living on-site has also been enjoyable for Laurie, who says that “coming from inner-city London, it’s very different!”

Currently, Laurie’s working with education volunteer Amy on a project aimed at calculating the carbon footprint of a meal bought at the CAT restaurant. In the next few months Laurie is also hoping to install a weir at the reservoir to monitor the flow rate from the spring.

Thomas has been volunteering in displays for two months. Taking a gap year after finishing school in Germany, Thomas was keen to get some experience in what he hopes to study at university, mechanical engineering for renewable energy. Thomas has also long wanted to spend some time in the UK, and volunteering over the winter at CAT proved the perfect opportunity to do so.

In the displays department, who take care of the displays on the visitor’s circuit, Thomas’ daily tasks include cleaning, sweeping, making signs, refurbishment and maintenance. So far, Thomas has learnt to do some interesting DIY, including replacing a U-turn. The tasks are a good mix of ones that require lots of guidance, and ones where Thomas has more independence.

The community has exceeded Thomas’ expectations of what a small group of people in an isolated rural area would be like. It is, he says, “international, open minded, very friendly, and really interesting.” Being at CAT has provided a great opportunity for Thomas to work on his English; in his time here he’s taken a course in Welsh as well.

Most of all, Thomas is enjoying the interdepartmental aspect of CAT. Rather than being a specialised institution, Thomas appreciates CAT’s holistic approach, which has given him a broader overview, learning in turn about biology, gardening and other departments, as well as renewable energy.

What our gardeners have been up to this week…


The week just gone has been a busy one in the CAT gardens. Our team of gardeners have battled inclement weather to finish the culinary herb display which will take pride of place in the restaurant courtyard. Eventually, the wooden posts will have the names of and information about the herbs carved into them, encouraging visitors to CAT to learn about edible herbs. The end result – which will also feature plants trained to grow around frames – will be a ‘gallery’ aimed at getting people to look closer at each individual plant.

Our gardeners have also sown garlic in Roger’s field. Sowing garlic in October gives the new plant a chance to establish roots during Winter, ready to shoot up rapidly in Spring. The garlic cloves were sown to coincide with Monday’s full moon, and will be ready to harvest in Summer. Two varieties were sown: elephant garlic, and CAT’s own special variety which hails originally from the Pyrenees, which Roger has been saving the seed of for 25 years.

And finally, our gardeners have been busy saving seed from a variety of plants. Below is a fennel plant growing in Roger’s field which will be harvested soon for seed.

The story of salad (a photo story of the life cycle of a salad at CAT)

What’s the life cycle of a salad? It’s concerning that we often don’t know the origin of our food – where it comes from, how it was produced, harvested and processed, and how the waste from production has been dealt with. As we grow some of our own food at CAT, we’re privileged to be able to see the whole process in action. Below, we trace a salad from the field to the fork – and back.

Monday 9.30am. Roger, CAT’s gardener, and his team of volunteers pick salad for the restaurant and staff kitchens. Roger’s Field, behind the eco cabins, provides greenery for staff lunches and for visitors to the centre. An experienced organic grower, Roger doesn’t use pesticides on his field, instead finding other ingenious ways of preventing his produce from being eaten.












Monday 10.00am. Gardens volunteer Pablo picks salad. Volunteers are a fixture of life at CAT, and many have left inspired during the 25 years Roger has been tending his field.















Forum and Feast Conference. Saturday, 05 November [Booking deadline extended]
Book now. Box office deadline extended.

Digest information by day in the food waste forum, and dine in style by evening at This is Rubbish’s “Feast” finale
At the conference you will have the opportunity to explore the issues behind food waste in the UK, find out about European and global food supply chains, digest the latest facts and figures, and investigate solutions that will help create a zero carbon Britain.

Monday 10.30am. Beans ready to be taken to the kitchens. A variety of plants are grown in the field, carefully selected for their compatibility with the Welsh climate and soil. It’s also important that they will mature at different times, to make sure that the field will produce a constant supply throughout the year. And, without the need to grow varieties that will withstand long-distance transportation, Roger is able to grow plants high in nutritive value.


Monday 11.00am. A volunteer takes the freshly picked salad to the kitchens. It’s a a short distance – a mere five minute walk, which contrasts sharply with the distance food will usually travel to reach a plate. But is the answer always buying local? Listen to this podcast with Peter Harper to find out more.













Monday 1.00pm. Staff and volunteers load up plates at lunchtime. The freshness of the salad, picked only three hours previously, makes it highly nutritious; produce loses its nutrients quickly after being picked and so, where possible, it’s important to eat recently harvested food.

Tuesday 9.00am. Biology volunteer Rowan collects food waste from the kitchens. Competition for seconds means that there are rarely leftovers. However, there’s always some unavoidable waste from preparing food, which provides an important source of nutrients when composted.












Forum and Feast Conference. Saturday, 05 November [Booking deadline extended]
Book now. Box office deadline extended.

Talks, discussions, case studies and exhibition stalls allow you to network, meet the experts, and discover more about the future of food. In the evening, we have organised a three course sumptuous supper served at a candlelit table, accompanied by live music and entertainment.

Tuesday 2.30pm. Gardens volunteer Pablo empties food waste into the Rocket composter. The Rocket makes composting significantly easier, dramatically speeding up the process. It acts like a large mechanical worm. Food waste is put in one end, where the same bacteria found in the gut of a worm breaks down the matter, emerging at the other end two weeks later as humus. The decomposition process heats up the matter, the heat in turn killing any undesirable organisms present.








Tuesday 2.00pm. Gardens volunteer Pablo moves the humus fresh out of the rocket into a rat proof cage to mature. While humus has nutritive qualities, it needs to be let a bit longer to continue decomposing, as in its rawer state it’s not as beneficial for crops as fully decomposed compost it. The humus is then left for several months, until it’s ready to be spread onto the field.










Tuesday 4.00pm. Roger’s field soaks up the afternoon sun. Compost is an important source of nutrients for the field, encouraging fertility and productivity.