God and Nature Summer 2021
Centre for Alternative Technology
By Mike Clifford
I’ve just uploaded a copy of possibly the ugliest photo ever taken of me to the internet. This wasn’t as the result of some strange viral online challenge, and to the relief of my friends and acquaintances, my Facebook profile picture remains unchanged from something a little more flattering. No, after a year of not having a valid passport, the glimmer of hope that international travel will start to open up soon(ish) persuaded me that it was time to apply for new travel documents. There’s a rumour of possible trips to India and East Africa on the horizon later this year, but for now, my suitcase is staying put and gathering dust atop the wardrobe. I have no idea why passport photos have to look so dour—maybe it’s an accurate reflection of what people look like after they’ve been travelling for 24 hours—but to spare the eyes of regular readers, I won’t add a copy of my mugshot to this article.
2021 was another funny old year. Despite—or maybe because of— working harder than usual delivering lectures, seminars, and tutorials from the relative comfort of the spare bedroom turned study, I’ve taken more holiday this summer than for quite a few years. I work at the University of Nottingham, in the Faculty of Engineering. As such, I find that my work and my day-to-day life are often interconnected. Hence, it was no surprise that last summer, whilst on holiday with my family in North Wales, I took the opportunity to visit the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), somewhere I’d wanted to go to for over twenty years. Fortunately, there’s no need for a passport to travel to Wales from England. (Interested American readers may wish to resort to Google to try to understand the difference between England, “Great Britain” and “The United Kingdom”.)
CAT began life in 1973 on a disused slate quarry, and has evolved from a community to a visitor centre to an educational charity specialising in sharing practical solutions for sustainability. In the early days, CAT had a reputation as being strictly for hippies, but as we learned whilst chatting to some locals on the bus, these days it attracts a wide cross-section of visitors. CAT is tucked away in a fairly remote corner of mid-Wales (if mid-Wales can have corners), with the tongue-twisting location: Llwyngwern Quarry, Pantperthog, Machynlleth, Wales. With Covid restrictions still in place, it’s essential to wear a mask before attempting to pronounce the address out loud!
The site contains interactive demonstrations of how energy can be generated from water, wind, and the sun, along with sustainable building methods, organic gardening, and water treatment (the site isn’t connected to mains drainage). I particularly enjoyed the water-powered funicular railway and seeing the practical applications of technology. In fact, the whole family had a splendid time cranking the handles of various exhibits and enjoying the delights of the on-site café.
My visit caused me to wonder if CAT should change its name, since many of the technologies on display like solar panels, heat pumps, and wind turbines are no longer regarded as “alternative” in the sense that these items are becoming commonplace. CAT’s website states that “we already have all the technologies we need to achieve zero carbon emissions [for the UK] by 2050—or even earlier.” In view of the urgent need to respond to the climate emergency, perhaps CAT should rebrand as CNAT, the Centre for No-Alternative Technology, and have the tagline “not just for hippies”, since as a planet and as individuals we have no alternative but to adopt cleaner, greener technologies if we are to avert a climate catastrophe.
1. Centre for Alternative Technology
Mike Clifford is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham. His research interests are in combustion, biomass briquetting, cookstove design, and other appropriate technologies. He has published over 80 refereed conference and journal publications and has contributed chapters to books on composites processing and on appropriate and sustainable technologies.