A visit and residential course at the Centre for Alternative Technology

September 26th, 2012 by Katharine Mann Leave a reply »
WISE Building

The WISE Building at the Centre for Alternative Technology

Since hearing from a friend who is doing her Masters there, and reading their Clean Slate magazine, I’ve wanted to visit the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), near Machynlleth in Wales. CAT is a world renowned eco-centre with interactive displays and practical examples of the following:

  • sustainable living
  • renewable energy
  • and organic gardening.

To make the most of my train trip to Machynlleth, 3 miles from CAT, I combined a visit with a three day residential course: “Introduction to renewable energy systems”.

On arrival, I was transported by the water balanced cliff railway installed in 1974, up a 35°-gradient hill. At the top I took in the stunning, green, lush view of the surroundings, a former slate quarry in southern Snowdonia. I spent all morning looking round the various exhibits including:

  • Solar panels which you can move around to test the optimum angle and direction
  • Audio information about the exhibits which play by winding the handle – one way for English and the other way for the Welsh version
  • The wind-powered seat
  • Hobby allotment and bee shed containing information about the importance of bees
  • Most insulated house in Britain, with 450mm of insulation and quadruple glazing
  • Theatre made of straw bales
  • Insulation options for different wall types such as solid-wall and cavity-wall
  • The shop, selling a large range of books as well as low impact household products, clothes and gifts.

I started the course that afternoon, and it was delivered by lecturers and research students based at the Welsh Institute for Sustainable Education (WISE) who are passionate about sustainable living. The main lecturer was Tobi Kellner who is an Energy Modeller and part of the research team for Zero Carbon Britain.

We began with a definition of renewable energy systems: energy; which comes from resources such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides and geothermal heat; which are naturally replenished. There were then sessions covering practicalities like the conditions required, installation and maintenance costs, output, expected payback period, any feed in tariffs or grants available and if they are subject to planning or building control regulations. This was broken down for each of the following renewable energy systems:

  • Solar photovoltaics for generating electricity
  • Solar hot water
  • Biomass stoves and boilers
  • Micro-hydroelectric power
  • Ground-source and air-source heat pumps
  • Wind power

Having learnt about the theory of each energy system we could then see it in practice around the site. For example, we started up the micro hydro-power turbine to see how much power it generated, and saw a solar hot water system made out of a radiator painted black.

The lectures and the accommodation for the course were all in the Welsh Institute for Sustainable Education (WISE) building (see the picture above) which opened in 2010 and showcases the highest standard of green building, energy conservation and renewable energy generation. The thick walls are made of low embodied energy materials such as hemp and lime, rammed earth and locally sourced sustainable timber making them breathable and very well insulated.

The building is designed for low energy consumption, and 20% of the whole site’s electricity is generated from on-site renewable energy sources including solar photovoltaic panels, hydro and wind turbines. The rest of the electricity comes from the national grid on Good Energy’s tariff which sources 100% of its electricity from renewable energy sources. The WISE building also hosts an impressive array of solar thermal collectors which contribute to the domestic hot water needs.

I thoroughly enjoyed my 3 informative, inspiring and sunny days at CAT and recommend a visit!

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