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Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) / Inspiring a workforce for the future

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If the UK, and indeed the whole world, is to make the shift away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy, an army of skilled workers is needed to make it happen.

CAT is one of the UK’s main centres of practical expertise in sustainable energy and architecture, and has had a longstanding goal of educating and training as many people as possible in these areas.

In five years, CAT educated over 1,400 MSc students

Over 2,100 people attended short courses in sustainable energy.

Receives about 65,000 people annually at its visitor centre

"I decided the CAT MSc was the best mixture of theory and hands-on of all the courses available, and the bigger picture of how this fits into what’s happening globally is great."

MSc student, CAT


With pressure to reduce CO2 emissions and rising fossil fuel prices, there is a strong need for the UK to reduce demand for energy, to improve energy efficiency, particularly in heating and lighting buildings, and to generate more energy from renewable sources. Several key ingredients are required for this to happen, such as finance, legislation on planning and CO2 emissions and increased carbon prices. However, even with all of that in place, nothing can happen without a skilled workforce to turn the UK’s sustainability aspirations into reality. They are needed in all sectors, including installers to help retrofit homes and businesses, engineers to work on larger scale renewable energy projects, architects to design sustainable buildings and urban planners to redesign our towns and cities to steadily reduce the use of oil-fuelled transport. For several years the skills shortage in the renewable energy sector has been highlighted; the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) has developed a programme of postgraduate and professional training courses to help fill this gap.

MSc students live and work in the WISE building at CAT, a beautiful example of sustainable architecture

The organisation

CAT was founded in 1973 by Gerard Morgan-Grenville as a community built around environmentally friendly practices and, in his own words, as “a project to show the nature of the problem and show ways of going forward”. From its early days, working to turn a disused Welsh slate quarry into a sustainable and habitable community, CAT has made significant progress, and now hosts a visitor centre through which about 65,000 people pass every year, learning about the importance of building a sustainable society and how they can help make it happen.

CAT realised however, that just visiting for a few hours was not enough for everyone, and since 1981 has been running training courses of various types and levels. CAT currently employs about 120 people, and through its training and outreach work has become well-known across the UK as a leader in the sustainability and renewable energy sector. CAT’s annual income in the last year was about £5.3m.

Our students are a huge thinking machine attached to CAT, researching all the different issues surrounding the technologies we’re using.

Paul Allen, Development Director, CAT

The programme

What courses are offered?

CAT offers a range of training to fulfil different needs and levels of qualification. At the academic end of the spectrum are the postgraduate and professional diploma courses:

  • MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies (also available by distance learning).
  • MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment.
  • Professional Diploma Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies.
  • MSc Environmental Change and Practice: Buildings.
  • Professional Doctorate: Ecological Building Practices.

CAT started running MSc courses in 1994 in partnership with the University of East London (UEL). Initially the courses were based at UEL but they moved to CAT in 2000. In 2007 CAT formed the Graduate School for the Environment (GSE) and took over the responsibility for the courses, including taking on staff from UEL. UEL still provides validation for some of the academic courses. CAT also offers a professional doctorate in ecological building practices at GSE, validated by the Cardiff Metropolitan University (UWIC).

Alongside the GSE, CAT also offers over 80 short courses, varying in length from one to six days. Topics covered include:

  • ‘Taster days’ in renewable heating, renewable electricity, solar PV, wind power.
  • More in-depth courses on solar PV, solar water heating, biomass heating, wind power, hydro power and sustainable building.
  • Installer training for solar PV, solar thermal, biomass and ground source heat pumps.
  • Other courses focused on sustainable economics, environmentally friendly water supply and sanitation, ecology, organic food production and woodland management.

The ‘taster day’ courses are aimed at the interested public, and can be taken further by attending the in-depth courses, some of which involve attending one of the MSc course modules. The courses for installers result in accreditation with relevant institutions, and are aimed at professional electricians, plumbers and heating engineers.

How much does it cost?

The cost of the MSc courses for UK and EU students in 2011 ranges from £6,000 to £6,500, while the Professional Diploma is £9,250 and the Professional Doctorate £2,650/year. Although costs are higher than the typical £4,500 being charged in 2011 by other universities for MSc courses, the fee at CAT includes eight weeks of full board accommodation, and gives access to the unique learning environment at their site.

Learning how to assess a site’s potential for hydroelectricity on a CAT practical session

Short courses cost from £50 for the ‘taster days’ to £950 for the longer installer courses. While some courses are fixed price, many of them offer a 40% discount for concessions, and all courses longer than a single day include all food and accommodation.

UK Ashden Award for Sustainable Buildings

Passivhaus Trust

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How are the courses delivered?

Short courses run over up to six consecutive days, while the postgraduate courses take up to two years, with students taking eight modules from a wider choice of different subjects. The modules are delivered for one week each month, and the students are also required to write a dissertation based on their own research in their final semester. The MSc courses can be studied part-time, and the architecture course by distance learning, although this means missing out on the practical elements of the course.

Each module on the MSc courses lasts one week, and one day of the week is set aside for practical work to build upon the theoretical learning already completed. All courses at CAT are intensive in nature, with students living on site for the duration of the teaching sections of the course, allowing them to share ideas and discuss what they’ve learned with each other. This immersion in the subject being studied is one of the characteristics that helps CAT students come away with an infectious enthusiasm for the subject and sustainability in general, and the ability to put their ideas into practice.

The knowledge I gained at the CAT has completely changed my world view; it has opened my eyes to the opportunities we have as aid and development organisations to increase access to and knowledge of sustainable energy systems, environmentally beneficial community design patterns and beneficial academic links that are possible.

Magnus Wolfe Murray, Humanitarian Advisor, Department for International Development, and a CAT graduate

The recently completed WISE (Wales Institute for Sustainable Education) building at CAT is crucial to the (MSc) postgraduate courses. Not only does it house a 200-seat lecture theatre, laboratories, offices and a dining area, it also provides accommodation for students, and is an example of what can be achieved by putting into practice the subjects that are being studied within it. The building is designed to require minimal heating and lighting, using passive ventilation, solar gain, daylighting, thermal mass and high levels of insulation. Solar water heating and a biomass boiler supply heat, and both heat and electricity are individually metered in all rooms in the building, creating a valuable dataset that students can use to evaluate the building’s performance.

One of the key features of the courses at CAT is that they include a significant practical element, which is important to help students cement their theoretical learning by putting it into practice. Few other MSc courses provide the same diversity of topics and depth of practical experience, and students come from other EU countries to study at CAT. As CAT staff have been designing, building and maintaining renewable energy generation and sustainable buildings for nearly 40 years, there is a wide range of equipment at hand that can be used for education. Some examples include:

  • A solar PV roof that can have faults deliberately introduced to test students’ ability to diagnose problems.
  • A range of solar water heating devices, including some that can be modified by students.
  • Numerous wind turbines of different designs and sizes that can be examined and monitored.
  • Working hydro turbines, including some that can be experimented with.
  • Practical areas where sustainable building techniques can be learned.
  • A working biomass boiler and biomass CHP system that can be used to illustrate specification, design, installation and maintenance issues.

Along with this equipment is the in-depth expertise of the CAT staff who built and maintain it, which they pass on to the students in practical sessions that integrate with the lecture-based learning.


Environmental benefits

The direct environmental benefits of CAT’s education work are related to the sustainable buildings in which students live and study, but the indirect benefits are much more significant. CAT is training and educating people to work in the many roles required to put the UK on a sustainable energy footing, and doing so in increasing numbers. It is also receiving groups of students from other universities for short visits so that their expertise can be shared more widely. Students and trainees do not just leave CAT with knowledge and experience though – they also tend to acquire an enthusiasm for sustainability that prompts them to take action and encourage others to do the same, further multiplying the benefits CAT’s work has.

Students learning about building techniques

Other indirect benefits to come out of CAT’s educational work have resulted from student research projects. The bulk of the Zero Carbon Britain report was based on the work of students, and the recently updated version, Zero Carbon Britain 2030, has already been influential in the UK, with government ministers taking an interest in it.

Social benefits

Unlike most other universities, CAT does not require a relevant first degree in order to study for the MSc courses, and is prepared to take suitable work experience in its place. CAT also allows potential students to visit for free to stay for one night and sit in on a postgraduate course module, to get an idea of whether the course is suitable for them. Because some students on the MSc courses may not have academic backgrounds, CAT provides additional support through workshops on essay writing, giving presentations and preparing a thesis. Varying levels of ability or time available are also catered for in the qualifications resulting from the MSc courses, with diplomas available for those who are unable to complete the full course.

I chose CAT for the practical element, and being part of a community where I can learn from the other people who are studying here.

MSc student, CAT

The MSc courses at CAT are particularly suited to students who need to continue with their job while studying, as the modules are delivered for one week each month in an intensive process, or one week every two months for part-time students. Distance learning is also possible for the architecture MSc, helping students who cannot travel to CAT.

Economic and employment benefits

Over the past four years, over 2,100 people have attended short courses relating to sustainable energy at CAT, including 370 who have received studied for accreditation to install renewable energy equipment. Over the same period, over 800 students have started on the Architecture MSc and 220 have started the Renewable Energy MSc; during 2010 122 graduated. The Professional Diploma in architecture has been running since 2008, and 64 students have signed up so far, while 13 have started studying for Professional Doctorates since 2009.

It is not always possible to find out what students do after studying at CAT, although it is reasonable to assume that most people who came to train for accreditation as renewable energy installers have gone on to work in this area, as these courses are only open to people who already have relevant qualifications such as electricians or plumbers. In a recent survey of 142 MSc graduates, CAT found that graduates were working in the following sectors:

  • 38.7% Environmental consultancy
  • 6.3% Local government
  • 11.3% Charity and NGO
  • 1.4% Civil service
  • 9.2% Education
  • 18.3% Self employment
  • 14.8% Other or not specified

Typical jobs include:

  • Consultants and managers at the Building Research Establishment (BRE).
  • Renewable energy consultants, in engineering companies or freelance.
  • Sustainable construction and architecture.
  • Setting up or joining renewable energy installation companies.
  • Wind farm project managers.
  • Further study and lecturing in renewable energy.

Potential for growth and replication

The numbers enrolling on courses at CAT have been rising steadily, although the architecture MSc has suffered from effects of the recent recession. CAT has space to accommodate increased numbers on all of the postgraduate courses currently running, and short courses can be run more frequently as demand increases. CAT is also starting a new course in 2011, ‘MSc Environmental Change and Practice: Buildings’, to train students to work in designing and managing the built environment while taking account of sustainability and environmental issues. The other way CAT’s work can spread to a wider audience is through other universities sending their students to CAT to add a practical element to their MSc courses. This already happens, and there is room for further growth in this area.

General CAT visitor centre displays

To an extent, the scale of growth and replication of CAT’s work will depend on the level and pace of action that UK government and industry take in reducing both CO2 emissions and dependence on fossil fuels, but staff at CAT are not sitting idly waiting for this to happen. They, and their graduates, are working hard to influence organisations throughout the UK to realise the importance of moving the UK’s society and economy to a sustainable footing, and playing their part in making it happen.

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