Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sustainability Projects Around Mid Wales

I left the South Wales colliery valleys knowing that it had been an important experience, but feeling bereft from not having found any real solutions for a place that has given so much and received so little in return. My next stop would be the much more progressive area of Mid Wales, with a couple of specific spots in mind.

Overall I was hoping to start finding some examples of positive projects that could be applied to coalfield area regeneration. The first stop was the Center for Alternative Technology, or CAT for short. This place was recommended to me by some friends in the States who are ex-patriate Brits that had worked at CAT for about 6 years (we met at the Don Blankenship vs. Robert Kennedy Jr. debate in Charleston, WV of all places). CAT was started in the early 70s by a small group of creative idealists and legitimate engineers who took a landscape that consisted mainly of the leftover “slag tips” from slate mining and turned it into a multi-faceted institution of research, education, and ecotourism. It now has a global reputation as a very innovative and unique center that integrates many different sustainability-related themes under one umbrella.

As I wandered about the place, I was struck by all of the professional-looking displays that tackled most of the possible facets within renewable energy, organic agriculture, woodland management, and general sustainable living. Maybe I had expected more of a hippy look to the place, but overall it seemed quite normal and presentable to me. Kids were playing with displays about passive solar design and micro hydropower, parents were checking out timelines about the development of wind energy, and volunteers/interns were pushing wheelbarrows around while working in the on-site gardens. I ended up getting a behind-the-scenes tour of the old slate mine and the mountains that overlooked the place from a couple of these interns, and later found myself on the nearby beach for a stunning sunset.

I met up with the director of the place, Paul Allen, on my second day there to learn about the history and inner workings. Apparently everyone who works there (including Paul) makes the same salary, which works out to about $25,000 per year. It’s also controlled by the workers with no overarching CEO calling the shots. The constant stream of interns and volunteers (most on 6 month placements) bring an evolving set of new ideas to the place which helps to keep things fresh and interesting. In general the place has been financially sound over the years, though it is a constant effort to ensure economic well-being. They are very lucky in that they get a lot of visitors due to their proximity to the touristic destinations of the West Wales coast and the North Wales mountains (visitors are charged about $10 to come in and walk around for the day). CAT has been involved with some large-scale policy work recently, such as the “Zero Carbon Britain” report that serves as an environmental/economic stimulus package recommendation and the work-in-progress film called “Power and Place” which aims to position Wales as a potential leader in the new “eco-industrial” revolution, just as it played a major role in the original industrial revolution.

As we talked in the pavilion under a roof of solar panels, a couple of things kept going through my head. CAT has successfully built a very innovative institution that is quite inspiring and could serve as a model for many other rural communities and places that have been dependent on extraction, just like Wales. At the same time, there are some real issues that have to be examined to be able to relate this to the real world. First, the solar panels, wind turbines, hydropower, and biomass boiler systems have all largely been possible because of grant funding and support from the UK government and wealthy liberal English donors; I have to wonder how long it will take for the solar panels to pay for themselves with all of these cloudy Welsh days and how that can translate into the lives of the average person living in the area. Second, I couldn’t help but notice that very few if any of the visitors while I was there were actually Welsh; they were nearly all middle class English liberals on vacation.

I’m less concerned about the first point than the second. Renewables will eventually be competitive as the cost of fossil fuel extraction continues to increase; in the meantime I think it’s a worthwhile use of taxpayer and philanthropic money to help get pilot projects off the ground so that people can see what possibilities are out there. However, I do think that it is very important that local people in rural areas be reached out to, especially when they wouldn’t normally be apt to check out a “green” project that was put in place by outsiders. One staff member at CAT remarked that if the local Welsh people weren’t coming then it was their own fault since they now had free admission to the place whereas tourists have to pay. That may be, but sometimes you have to make a bit of an effort to bring people in who wouldn’t otherwise take interest.

While still in the Machynlleth area, I met with a long-term employee of Dulas, a CAT spin-off company. Started back in the mid 1970s to commercialize a solar-powered vaccine refrigerator that a CAT engineer had designed, this for-profit company has grown into a world-leader in the design/installation fields for commercial-scale solar, wind, hydro, and most recently biomass technologies. They’re one of the most established and respected company in the UK for this kind of work, having written the field guide for wind power surveys, installed solar and hydro systems for rural electrification all over the world, and helped to pioneer legislation to make renewables more viable. Dulas has a worker-owned structure where all employees own shares and receive dividends based on how much they work, and is arguably one of the largest companies in the world with this structure (around 75 employees). They managed to have over 1 million GBP in profit last year, all while contributing a significant portion of their time and energy to humanitarian efforts and local workforce training in the areas where their installations are done, ranging from remote sections of Africa to low-income areas in Wales.

The final place to visit in Wales was Aberystwyth University. A retired professor at Bangor University (back at the beginning of my trip) had mentioned that his daughter is working on biomass energy here, and before I knew it Kerrie had organized a full tour of the work going on at Aberystwyth for me. This place has a very diverse and comprehensive set of departments working together on energy crops, biomass energy processes, and the economic viability therein. I felt very lucky as 4 different research scientists showed me around their respective projects, ranging from pyrolysis, anaerobic digestion, willow and miscanthus breeding, and cellulosic ethanol. The approach here was focused on the most efficient way to make use of a variety of agriculturally-based inputs in a way that generates the most energy and creates the most beneficial byproducts. This is exactly the kind of system that I would like to set up when I get back to Kentucky, so it was very nice to see that other people are thinking along the same lines.

It was a bit strange to leave Wales at the end of 5 weeks. The place felt strangely home-like, and I was beginning to feel the vortex that could suck me in and keep me here for another 6 months if I let it. I'm sure that I could continue to dig up more and more interesting places, people, and projects if I continued to stay, but the same could be said of anywhere that I'll be stopping on this trip. With that, I will leave you with this nugget of wisdom about the many contributions Wales has made to world history.


  1. Well darn! Looks like your-a-hav-n-ya-a-good-ol-time!

    We miss ya in these here Appalachian hills!

  2. BTW... Maybe you should check this place out:

    Sound familiar?