Geek's Guide

Rock reboot and the Welsh windy wonder: Centre for Alternative Technology

Biomass and the pit

By SA Mathieson


Geek's Guide to Britain There are plenty of tourist attractions scattered around the coast of Cardigan Bay in Wales. But for the last four decades, the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) has provided something appropriately... alternative. There is an early sign of this in the car park – a huge wind turbine blade, placed as if to diminish the fossil-fuel powered vehicles alongside it.

The centre itself is at the top of a steep slope, on what was once the waste pile for a nearby slate quarry. Visitors have a choice of renewable energy transport options: drive your electric car to the free recharging point at the top; catch a funicular cliff railway powered by water; or take a stiff walk up the Garden Steps.

I opt for the railway, which as it travels up a 34 degree slope provides fine views across to Tarren-y-Gesail, one of Snowdonia’s mountains.

Emerging from the wooden building at the top of the railway, there is a scenic lake, which provides the water to power the railway – the car at the top gets a full tank, the car at the bottom has its emptied and gravity does the rest – along with gardens and a few buildings. It looks quite bucolic.

Founded 40 years ago by environmentalist Gerard Morgan-Grenville, CAT has a mission based on science and engineering: to teach visitors about renewable technologies such as wind, solar and hydro-electric power, as well as efficient use of other resources such as water.

Spread out across seven acres, it does so through exhibits, installations on different power sources and by offering the public the opportunity to study through a range of courses with everything from free water efficiency days for plumbers to a Masters Degree in renewable energy.

The centre isn’t just about teaching, but also very much about experimenting and putting things into practice – learning along the way as well as demonstrating to the public what’s possible.

To that end, you’ll find the centre’s eco house and organic garden, composting and soil experiment, and alternative building construction methods. Some activities, such as that garden and those soil projects, were drive by the fact CAT was scratched from the barren and rocky wastes of a slate quarry some four decades back.

There is a suggested route visitors can take around the centre, although it’s also easy just to wander around. Taking the route, one of the first stops is the Whole Home, an energy-efficient house with lots of advice – some of it surprising, such as the fact that gas ovens produce lower carbon emissions than those using electricity (because of power loss through the national grid).

The house also includes a biomass room, featuring modern wood-burning stoves. One is trickle-fed by wooden pellets, the other burns logs in batches and stores heat in a tank, with both used for central heating.

Welcome to Wales: a dismembered wind turbine welcomes you in CAT's carpark

Things get more fun further up the path with the Mole Hole for children, a dark tunnel featuring giant models of underground creatures. While this has messages about biodiversity and organic soil, it is also gives kids the chance to squeal at models of creepy-crawlies.

The tunnel leads out into a polytunnel organic garden which is warmed by ground heat and therefore doesn’t need electrical heaters. There is also an adventure playground nearby.

Further on, a barn by a courtyard has its southern-facing roof covered with 20kW-worth of solar panels; this was a large installation when the centre put it in a few years ago, but similar ones are now commonplace. This one is particularly pretty, as it uses semi-transparent integrated photo-voltaic panels that let a lattice of sunlight through.

“All living things can be composted”

The courtyard leads to the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education, the centre’s graduate school. This building has won architectural awards, both for its energy efficiency and its beauty.

Visitors can see the interior if no events are taking place, and it is worth doing so: the round Sheppard lecture theater, with a ‘moon disc’ ceiling window that can be opened and closed, would cheer up the dullest PowerPoints.

The interior wall looks like it's made of soil, because it is – compressed rammed earth, which absorbs heat from the sun and releases it slowly like a storage heater. Other parts of the building are made from hemp mixed with lime, as well as wood and high performance double glazing.

After the Worm Slide – a big metal slide which invites kids to consider that “All living things can be composted, even you!” – things take a turn for the technical. There is an exhibition on wind power, including a decommissioned set of turbine blades, and a set of interactive exhibits.

These let you try out different types of turbine blade in a wind tunnel and feel the lift produced by different designs, as well as an exercise bike where you can try to generate the 500W needed to run a personal computer – which is harder than it looks.

Big in the day: 20kW-worth of solar panels

Visitors can get free advice on renewable energy at the information centre, and during school holidays there are activities for children. But the centre also runs courses, and while some of these cover hobbies such as woodland crafts and gardening, others are professionally-focused.

Adam Tyler, a renewable energy consultant, lecturer and engineer, runs several of the engineering courses. He tells me the renewable energy systems course has plenty to offer IT professionals and facilities managers concerned with powering data centres and other substantial IT installations with renewable energy, and that the centre can also offer bespoke training and consultancy.

Tyler reckons it’s entirely possible to run a data centre reliably on renewable energy – through its Zero Carbon Britain work the centre believes this is true of the whole country, although the latter would require some significant changes in national lifestyle.

The trick in both cases is not to use just one type of renewable energy: “We can easily produce more than enough renewable energy, but it’s how you balance that,” Tyler tells me. “It needs to be a well thought-out integration of different technologies.”

The problem with using just one source is illustrated by those well-meaning types who plan to go off-grid by disconnecting from external power sources and using their own renewable energy.

Tyler’s verdict? “Living off-grid is one of the least green things you can do,” he says. Almost inevitably, it will mean some use of batteries to power things when the wind isn’t blowing and/or the sun isn’t shining.

“The only realistic way to do it would be to pick a site next to a big mountain with water running down it,” he says, and not just any mountain; reliable hydroelectric power generation requires 30m of vertical drop and a reliable flow of water.

The centre’s graduate school has won architectural awards for its energy efficiency and beauty

It’s worth noting that the centre is itself next to a big hill from which it obtains hydroelectric power, and has extensive solar and wind generating equipment. But after trying to do without in its early years, it connected itself to the national grid.

For many organisations, the simplest way to move to renewable energy is to use a supplier that buys or generates equivalent levels of green power to its customers’ usage, and supplies the grid. But that’s only part of the way to green computing: despite its fluffy image, the centre eschews cloud computing.

“That’s passing the energy off to someone else, and hoping they do it responsibly,” Tyler tells me, as many US east coast data centres are powered using cheap and dirty coal. A few, in places including Iceland and Scandinavia do better, by using hydroelectric and and geothermal energy.

Moving away

An organisation that’s greened its power supply and checked its cloud suppliers can then look at its hardware, although Tyler says it is rarely worth replacing kit from an environmental point of view until it has reached the end of its life.

It is often hard to get environmental data out of IT hardware firms, he adds – if they publish it, they are probably quite good anyway. Saving energy can make a big contribution too, and to that end the centre is developing open source energy management software.

Whether visiting as a tourist or for a course, there’s a choice when leaving: between exiting through Britain’s Greenest Shop – selling a range of ethically and environmentally sound products – and walking down the steep slope to the car park, or another trip on the cliff railway.

You can also power up with a stop at CAT’s vegetarian café – refreshments are sourced locally, or are organic and fair trade with full meals, salads, home-made cakes plus organic liquid intake.

A water-powered funicular takes a load of your dogs

Inspired by the centre’s messages on saving energy, I took the railway again on my way out.

Outside the centre there are plenty of other things to do nearby (particularly if you have, er, a car to get to them). The nearby town of Machynlleth features handsome architecture, lots of cafés and the Museum of Modern Art Wales.

It’s also a good place to stay and eat, with excellent dinners at the Wynnstay Hotel. Should you choose to linger locally, the area boasts an impressive number of holiday cottages and places to stay – a section of CAT’s website helps you book.

A few miles north is the Corris craft centre, featuring studios, Welsh food and drink and King Arthur’s Labyrinth, an underground boat trip featuring Arthurian legends. It’s also 20 miles to the lively seaside resort and university town of Aberystwyth, and the spectacular Snowdonia National Park lies to the immediate west and north of the centre.

There’s something to interest all ages at CAT although it’s probably not the place for those who see wind turbines as blots on the landscape rather than a great way to leverage Britain’s status as Europe’s windiest nation. The centre is focused on practical engineering-led solutions, and it is convinced that the future of energy is renewable – that's why it was set up. Wind, as we know, plays a big part of that message for many.

But for those interested in how Britain can keep its lights and servers on in an environmentally sustainable fashion, the CAT has lots of interesting things to say – and appropriately, does so in a rather lovely environment. ®


52.6228, -3.8425


SY20 9AZ

Getting there

Car: the centre is on the A487 three miles north of Machynlleth, and is well-signed but allow allowing plenty of extra time. If you have a plug-in electric car, CAT offers a free recharging. Public transport: Train to Machynlleth from Birmingham every two hours, then three miles via foot, bike, cab or Lloyds Coaches - hourly bus that stops outside the centre. More information here.


Open daily from 10am to 5pm, last admission one hour before closing. Adults: £8.50, £7.50 for concessions including the over-60s and £4 for children. Tickets booked online cost 10 per cent less. There are no charges for local residents, children under three years and members.

Other resources

Centre for Alternative Technology

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