Thursday, 27 July 2017

I'm inspired by the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth

I got so lucky with two amazing visits to very different places in Wales last week. I've already blogged about our afternoon in Portmeirion and, two days later, we detoured slightly when passing through Machynlleth in order to visit the Centre for Alternative Technology. Dave visited this innovative facility over forty years ago which, we discovered on this visit, was not long after the site had opened. A small group of people moved into a disused Welsh quarry and began an experiment into truly sustainable and self-sufficient living. Dave remembered a house, some of the earliest solar panels and lots of huge batteries! A lot has changed since then both at CAT and in the wider world.

These days CAT is an education and visitor centre demonstrating practical solutions for sustainability. Their expertise cover all aspects of green living: environmental building, eco-sanitation, woodland management, renewable energy, energy efficiency and organic growing. The site is a unique and valuable practical demonstration centre, a living laboratory with an enormous range of live examples of sustainable solutions. CAT says they have the largest range of installed renewable systems anywhere and I can believe it.

We began by ascending in a little cliff railway - similar to the one at Oddicombe but entirely water powered. Don't sit at the front of the car if you are nervy of heights! The climb is steep! Once at the top we saw a brief informative film about CAT before being allowed to wander pretty much anywhere at will. I loved the working gardens and was amazed at the variety of plants grown for food and practical purposes. The greenhouses are beautiful and vividly colourful with flowers. One is set over a vent from the underground slate quarry - the original use of the site. Because the underground temperature remains constant throughout the year, CAT gardeners use the geothermal heat rising in winter as free frost prevention. Genius!

In other places we saw various types of solar panels creating electricity or heating water. One display demonstrated how painting a panel black and placing it under glass drastically increases its heating power. A DIY solar water heater on a roof - basically an old radiator painted black - reminded me of similar setups we saw in rural Spain. CAT also has Lots of Toys Educational Machines for all ages. I played with learned about wave power, pedal power and the best material blends for composting. Chris Killey if you're reading this - there's a whole section dedicated to composting toilets! The photo shows different wall building resources and elsewhere there was a cutaway straw wall too.

We explored for a couple of hours and my mind was buzzing with ideas for things we could try out at home. I appreciated that, while CAT runs training courses for professional tradespeople and post-graduate students, they offer advice and suggestions to be utilised cheaply by small-scale amateurs too! Displays about energy and water consumption were particularly interesting as clear graphics showed how even minor household decisions can make massive usage differences over time. The pictured graphic shows the needed water for a kilogram each of chickpeas and beef. Wow!

Because CAT had grown so much in scale since Dave's first visit we had no idea how long we would end up spending there. As it was we didn't do the quarry walking trail or go up to see the eco cabins, but we did find ourselves needing to visit the canteen for lunch! Very reasonably priced vegetarian food is served to staff and visitors alike. I had a proper oven-baked jacket potato - none of your microwave nonsense here! - which was delicious. I'd forgotten just how much I used to love jacket spuds!

Even the shop at CAT is an experience. I don't think I've ever seen so many how-to guides and green living books in one place. I managed to only buy one, but it was a struggle! I brought away a Short Courses brochure although I am not sure I will sign up to any. But if I ever need to learn how to build a tiny house, make hempcrete, cultivate mushrooms, understand deglaciation, set up a solar photovoltaic system, ... render lime or build an earth oven, I'll know who to call.

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