Students on the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Master degree in Renewable Energy and the Built Environment erect a wind turbine in Machynlleth, Wales
The UK’s Centre for Alternative Technologies in Wales, recognized as one of Europe’s leading eco-centres, offers graduates a Masters degree in Renewable Energy. Tim Probert attends class to find out more.

Tim Probert

At a disused slate quarry deep in the Welsh countryside, at the southern border of Britain’s majestic Snowdonia National Park, lies a true pioneer of renewable energy.

The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Machynlleth was established in the 1970s by Gerard Morgan-Grenville, who had a vision of creating a hub for like-minded people to find practical solutions for a simpler, sustainable way of living in what he saw as an overly-industrialized world.

The vision took form in 1973 when he came across Llwyngwern quarry, an area of slate waste and derelict buildings overgrown with birch trees and rhododendrons. Word spread quickly about the project and CAT soon became a honeypot for ecologists, primitivists, disgruntled academics and radical pragmatists.

Before long more than 20 people, including 10 children, were living on site, dedicated to finding sustainable solutions to energy generaton. The new brotherhood rebuilt ruined buildings, established gardens and generated their own electricity from renewable sources.


One of the first electricity generating devices was the Cretan wind turbine, which was made out of cloth and old car parts. Though a good idea in principle, it turned out to have low wind efficiency and high maintenance. Another early experimental wind turbine was the vertical axis Darrius, which looked like a four-bladed egg beater. It began turning by drag forces and then operated by lift once sufficient speed had been picked up.

CAT’s Rob Gwillim lectures students about wind turbine generators

CAT’s main office was designed in 1975 to be the first completely solar heated building. To do this, it had to have an interseasonal heat store, which saved up solar energy from the summer and used it in the winter.

In the same year, CAT, which now has around 90 000 members, opened its doors to the public as a visitor attraction. It now attracts around 70 000 visitors every year, many of whom are children on school trips, and is recognized as Europe’s leading ‘Eco Centre’. The restaurant, needless to say, is vegetarian. Today, around 160 staff are now employed at CAT, many of whom live on site.

The site now features two run-of-river micro hydropower installations, a range of small to medium wind turbines, a 20 kW solar photovoltaic roof, a solar thermal water heating system, a biomass (woodchip) combined heat and power plant and air source heat pumps, all of which is connected to CAT’s own microgrid and a 30 kW lead acid battery storage system.


In 2000, the Centre became home to a postgraduate degree course, based at CAT and covering many areas of environmental science and business applications. In 2007, the Graduate School for the Environment was founded, launching a new Masters degree (MSc) in Renewable Energy and the Built Environment, validated by the University of East London.

Scotland’s Hugh Piggott teaches CAT students how to carve wooden wind turbine blades. Piggott’s wooden wind turbines can be made for as little as $1300, including the generator – essentially the hub from a motor vehicle

The course runs for one year for full-time students and two years part-time. There is a choice of 11 modules, of which eight must be taken, plus a dissertation. Following the introductory module, covering climate change issues, electrical theory and how buildings use energy, other modules include sustainable buildings, hydro, wind, biomass, solar thermal and solar PV. The eighth is a practical design module doubled up with either of the wind, biomass, solar thermal or solar PV theory modules.

The modules do not just cover the electrical engineering of each source of renewable power generation. Students are taught every aspect of developing renewable energy projects from siting to financing plans, and how to involve the local community in sharing the benefits of a scheme.

PEi attended class during the teaching of the wind power module. Lectures were given in analysis of wind data, siting of wind turbines, wind turbine generators and rotors, yaw and control for wind turbines and environmental impact assessments of wind farms.

Dulas, a locally-based renewable energy developer, was on hand to guide students on how to develop community wind projects, using case studies in Zimbabwe and Wales, from how to create a suitable investment vehicle and sourcing the right equipment, to dealing with red tape and meeting grid code requirements.

Lectures take place in CAT’s new Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (WISE) building, which as well as the lecture theatre houses students’ accommodation and demonstrates ecological building principles such as passive solar building design and heat recovery ventilation, as well as low-impact building materials such as wood, hemp, lime and rammed earth. The external walls of the building are made from 500mm thick hempcrete, whereas the lecture theatre has 7.2 metres high walls made from 320 tonnes of rammed earth.

The theoretical lectures were conducted in tandem with practical teaching, which included wooden wind turbine blade carving, wind turbine site assessment as well as mounting and erecting a small wind turbine. CAT prides itself on offering its students a more holistic view of renewable energy.


As David Hood, a renewable energy engineer, consultant and CAT Masters degree course lecturer, says renewable energy is a growth area for university courses, but the difference is that a lot of the courses are run by the engineering departments of universities. “The CREST (Centre for Renewable Energy Systems Technology) course at Loughborough University, for example, has been running for a long time,” says Hood.

 The Centre for Alternative Technology’s 20 kWp solar photovoltaic roof

“But that’s more a theoretical course, like the dynamics of wind farms. We are much more into the practical implementations: we teach how wind turbines work, but also how they continue working and put them where they need to be.

“We focus a great deal on the theoretical design aspect of, for example, wind turbines, but we also focus on the implementation of renewable energy. It’s more system design rather than component design. We are not teaching our students to design and build, for example, an inverter, or indeed just how an inverter works.

“We are teaching people how to optimize a renewable energy system and how to choose between the different renewable technologies out there, because actually that is the bulk of the design work and implementation.

“If we train students to be technology specialists, for example a wind turbine engineer, then they may spend the rest of their lives trying to put wind farms on every site.

“We give people a broader view of how technologies work and how to implement them on different sites, so that people can choose appropriately. Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen in the renewables business.

“Take micro-CHP for example. At the moment this technology is not applicable for more residential or small-scale installations because micro-CHP would not be operational for long enough – just a few hours a day for most homes – to be cost-effective. However, there are locations where it would be suitable, and that’s what we teach our students.

“I used to run the consultancy department here and I’ve spent years looking at different renewable energy projects; some done well, some done badly. Often a bad renewable energy project is down to poor understanding of siting and poor understanding of the best renewable technology for that particular project. We teach students how to integrate those two things.”

At this stage of the interview we are interrupted by two RAF Tornado fighter jets, which use CAT’s wind turbines as signposts to bank left and fly back to base on the island of Anglesey, the home of the world’s most famous newlyweds: the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, aka Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Most of CAT’s students are reskilling engineers from a variety of different fields, says Hood. “Initially we did have a prescribed list of mandatory qualifications to enrol on the course,” he said, “but now we judge students individually on a case-by-case basis.

“We found that having a prescribed list excluded many people, including students from abroad or from certain industries. To enrol on the course, students have to demonstrate sufficient engineering understanding. We have a very broad range of intake.”

Hood’s eldest student is 72, who is currently writing a thesis about hydropower. “She did it because she wanted to keep active in something that interests her,” says Hood. “We have quite a few older people.

“They are not the majority by any means, most of our students are in their early 20s. About 10 per cent of our students across the whole course are women. That’s not ideal but it’s better than previously, and that’s representative of the entire engineering industry.”

CAT’s renewable energy students do not have to enrol on the £6500 ($10 665) Masters degree course. Certain single modules are offered members of the public: wind, biomass and hydro are particularly popular and many return to enrol on the entire course. CAT also runs short, taster courses in the various renewable energy technolgies.

In general, CAT’s Masters degree foreign students are from Europe, most of whom have been living in Britain for some time. Hood says the regulations for overseas students have been tightened significantly and are now highly prescriptive.

“It is quite absurd,” he says. “Students need to have £50 000 stashed away in a bank account to show that they can support themselves before they can even apply for a visa. I’d like to have a much wider breadth of student intake because in the past our overseas students have offered different takes on the situations we are dealing with on the course. It’s very easy to become anglicized in your view and it’s nice to have a different perspective.”


Once students have attained a Masters degree in Renewable Energy and the Built Environment, the next step is to find a job, which is not always easy in the current climate. Typically, CAT graduates find employment at renewable energy consultancies or at companies which install renewable projects as designers.

Hood says: “We’ve had people who have gone on to work for major renewables developers like E.ON, RWE Npower and Fulcrum; housing associations, local councils – one person’s job was to improve the energy efficiency of council buildings.

“There isn’t a single, distinct career path but generally the people who have come to us straight from university go on to join big consultancies, or set up their own renewable energy project consultancy business. Often students are sponsored to enrol in the course.

“One of the larger local employers in this field is DULAS, which is based three miles down the road. There are dozens of similar mid-size renewable energy companies in the UK and there are dozens more of the larger engineering consultancies.”

Hood says the market has exploded in recent years with hundreds of small- and medium-sized enterprises either starting up or existing firms shifting their activities to capitalise on the trends, fashioned in large part by the 2010 introduction by the UK government of feed-in tariffs for microgeneration, towards residential and other small scale renewable energy installations.

CAT also runs a £950, one week course in solar PV installation, largely aimed at electricians seeking to capitalize on the rush to erect rooftop solar panels since the April 2010 roll-out of the UK’s feed-in tariff subsidy scheme. Students work on a number of inverters, ranging from 1.8 kW to 4 kW.


The UK’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is an £860 million government scheme, the world’s first, aimed at stimulating a new market in renewable heat. It covers biomass, heat pumps, solar thermal, as well as biogas, a byproduct of anaerobic digestion which is scrubbed and injected into the UK’s national gas grid.

One of the Centre for Alternative Technology’s two mini-hydro schemes

Hood expects the CAT Masters degree in Renewable Energy to look more closely at the various RHI technologies. “We already largely cover the various technological heat generation sources covered by the RHI, but we will also now be teaching the funding mechanisms and the economic drivers behind the scheme. I already have three students who want to base their theses on various aspects of the RHI and how it can be implemented into projects.

“In the coming years the plan is to focus more on heat pumps and CHP, partly to do with the introduction of the RHI, partly because that’s what students want to study. As technology options, they complement each other quite well, because to all intents and purposes they are opposites in their implementation. They are diametrically opposed in terms of how they are used and how they are implemented but they are tied to the same electricity network.”


After completing eight modules out of the 11 on offer, the CAT Masters students, on average around 70 each year, must write their dissertation to graduate.

“Overall, we tend to get two different types of theses,” says Hood. “Some people look at a higher level of implementation principles. For example, they may look at the benefits of the RHI scheme for a community biomass project.

“This would be theoretical research. They would look at the incentives, the site of a biomass project and so on. They would build models to find at which point a project may break even, the limitations of a project and eventually design a framework to develop the project. Exactly what they would do if working for a renewable energy consultancy.

“Some people take a more practical approach to their dissertations. At the moment I have two students working on our large photovoltaic roof, one looking at the effects and benefits of integrating solar panels in buildings, the other looking at micro-inverters. They are physically monitoring equipment and compiling data, they then crunch the data to test the effectiveness of particular technologies.

“The students can use any of the various renewable technologies we have installed on-site, and it’s up to them to get more data from other renewable energy installations, typically teaming up with a renewable energy project developer. That’s actually worked very well in terms of gaining future employment for students.

“They approach the companies for some data, they build a rapport, the student delivers the company a thesis. That thesis gives the company some information about their projects and technology, and invariably that company takes them on. You can’t guarantee it, but it’s a very well proven route.”

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