back to article Rock reboot and the Welsh windy wonder: Centre for Alternative Technology

There are plenty of tourist attractions scattered around the coast of Cardigan Bay in Wales. But for the last four decades, the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) has provided something appropriately... alternative. There is an early sign of this in the car park – a huge wind turbine blade, placed as if to diminish the …

  1. ravenviz Silver badge

    Wish you were here...?

    The Reg has gone all Judith Chalmers!

  2. Major N

    50kW to run a personal computer? that's some overclock!

    1. Alister

      Drat, you beat me to it.

      I was going to say, at 50KW, it would probably power everything in our Comms Room at work, not just a PC.

    2. Richard Wharram

      Is your Personal Computer some kind of Hadoop Cluster?

      1. Kubla Cant

        Chris Boardman covered 49.411 km in an hour, with an estimated power output of 400 W. So to power your 50 kW mega-PC you'll need to pedal like 125 Boardmans.

        If your PC is dissipating heat equivalent to 16 radiators at 3kW each it must be toasty warm in your office.

        Does El Reg put things like this in to make sure we're all paying attention?

    3. Anonymous Coward

      ...but can it run Crysis?

    4. MrXavia

      "the 500W needed to run a personal computer – which is harder than it looks."

      Looks like its been corrected, but still... 500W for a PC?

      My entire computing setup, i7 Gaming Laptop + 2 monitors, tons of USB junk plugged in, plus a small mini-itx based server is only using 140W right now (Its all plugged in through an energy meter...

  3. Richard Wharram

    Call me a miserable git

    But I'd rather take my kids to Sellafield.

    1. Killing Time

      Re: Call me a miserable git

      I visited there a number of years ago and it wasn't as 'hippy commune' as I had imagined or as maybe it comes across, definitely full of ideas.

      It's worth a visit if you are in that area and if energy is your bag, checkout Electric Mountain (Dynorwig), that's Big Engineering and not too far away.

      1. davemcwish

        Re: Call me a miserable git

        Agree with Dynorwig. It was great to see it in real life having had it as a case study as part of an OU Engineering course.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Call me a miserable git

      miserable git

  4. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

    I wentthere in the 1980's

    I was a grey wet day and the grey slate didn't make it seem very inviting. That was soon changed by the obvious enthusiasm for the place that everyone seemed to have.

    Some of the ideas on thow then were a bit wierd but are now fairly mainstream.

    The wet climate around there does make it a preety good testing ground for this type of tech.

    It does sound that the places is a bit more commercially minded that it was back then.

    1. ChrisC Silver badge

      Re: I wentthere in the 1980's

      I have some rather fuzzy memories of visiting in the 80's as well - I think it'd featured in one of the Blue Peter annuals around then.

  5. DafyddGrif

    Wow - no wonder we have an energy crisis. According to this article there is "an exercise bike where you can try to generate the 50kW needed to run a personal computer" I'm glad my personal computer doesn't demand 50kW to work, I would have to ask the power company to lay down some big pipes to feed my house....

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Nah, just have 3 Phase installed... I have 3 phase, each phase is 100Amps, so if I remember right its 3 x 100Amps x 240Volts = 72Kw I could draw... although I suspect I would brownout the village if I tried..

  6. Arthur the cat Silver badge

    “All living things can be composted”

    But in many cases it's better to wait until they're dead before you try.

    1. Mark 85

      Re: “All living things can be composted”

      Oh I don't know. There's a few people who should be composted alive. And there's one at work who smells like he's been composting for the last 5 years.

  7. Dr Dan Holdsworth

    Lessons in ecology optional...

    If you visit this place, do remember to ask how many species of water plants are currently growing in the pond they have at the top of the hill. The muttered answer will be three or four.

    Then ask how many they planted originally: 12 if memory serves.

    What happened is that a centre that prides its self on knowledge of ecology and biology just tried to buck one of the few ecological theories which has actually been thoroughly experimentally tested: island biogeography.

    Basically, you need a set amount of habitat for each species in an ecosystem. Make the ecosystem too small, and some of the excess species will go extinct. Doesn't need to be the same species each time if you re-run the experiment, but you always hit about the same number of species per unit area of habitat.

    Nice of them to test that one out for us again, eh?

    Oh and try not to mention otters to the staff, either. They don't like otters very much, not after one made a habit of climbing out of the river below the site every evening, scampering up 200 feet of hill, diving into the pond and scoffing expensive koi carp until dawn, then waddling back down again.

    1. Kubla Cant

      Re: Lessons in ecology optional...

      Koi carp don't sound very alternative. My sympathies are with the otter.

  8. Mike Moyle

    +1 for the subhead

    Cheers to the sub-headitor!

  9. Richard Taylor 2

    I agree with the general tone of the article - worth a visit and good grub. You also get a years worth of visits if you can sign a tax refund form. What is interesting though is their account of how they moved from 'all energy generated onsite' to a mix (even if they generate the majority of their bulk energy - not timed) of grid and self generated.

    One disappointment is a display on one of the turbines with various celebs (including that man of science, Noel Edmonds - see previous reg and other articles) providing their soundbites in support.

    1. cosymart

      Good Grub!!

      Your definition of good grub is very different to mine - veggie cafe :-( Yet when I was there a few years back one of the sustainable ideas was a small holding with pigs and chickens.... but the "produce" was not sold in the shops or cafe, most strange.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Good Grub!!

        If they had a decent amount of pigs they could go Full Thunderdome and produce methane.

  10. armyknife

    Thanks for the interesting article.

  11. Developer Dude

    The data centers on the east coast may use "dirty coal", but they generally use it near to power plant, which is more efficient and less expensive. Also, the plants are usually outside the city and they can (if they choose to) make their emissions much more clean because the power is generated in one place, so they can spend the money and have the room to reduce their emissions, unlike small in-city power plants using the same fuel (or even "cleaner" fuel) which don't have the room or the scale (economically) to reduce their emissions by the same percentage.

    Whether they use power from that plant near the plant, or you use it in your house, it is still power from the same plant, and many data centers go to extensive lengths to make their computer power use much less power; using large very efficient DC power supplies to supply multiple servers, instead of an AC-DC power supply per server, and so on.

    Then there are the west coast data centers that use hydro, wind and solar power and like their east coast brethren use every trick they can to lower their power usage because even with those renewable power sources, their power bills are high.

    So the devil is in the details and you can't just dismiss some large category of computing power as "dirty".

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      It is hard to argue against data centers powered by coal being dirtier and responsible for more CO2 than data centers powered by almost anything else. Yeah, they don't have a lot of choice because if there is no hydro or gas power in the area coal is your only choice (yeah there's solar, but the eastern US, especially the NE, gets less sun than the rest so the cost per watt is higher as a result)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      "[datacentres] generally use [electricity] near to power plant, which is more efficient and less expensive."

      Citation welcome. Commonly quoted and entirely plausible figures suggest that transmission losses from power station to typical LV customer are less than 10%. Much (most?) of that 10% is losses in the local distribution network (240V, 11kV, in the UK) in transformers and in actual I2R copper losses.

      With a serious datacentre there is no equivalent "local distribution network" so the total transmission losses would be expected to be smaller. There'd still be some, but in the bigger picture would other factors outweigh them?

      Also, somebody wanting to spend a bit to save a bit could try going superconducting for the high voltage bit.

      "small in-city power plants using the same fuel (or even "cleaner" fuel) which don't have the room or the scale (economically) to reduce their emissions by the same percentage."

      Taken as read, but medium scale power plants (tens/hundreds of MW?) in built up areas in some parts of the world can sometimes find a market for their waste heat (assuming some kind of thermal station, probably fossil). Harder to do that in the middle of nowhere. Also hard to do that if you leave things to "the market"'s short-term, low-investment, separate-stovepiped view of the world, rather than looking at a bigger joined-up medium-term "energy supply and security" picture.

  12. Phuq Witt

    I Say Potato and You Say Pot-Ah-To

    So is it the Center for Alternative Technology or the Centre for Alternative Technology?

    ... because the article mentions both.

    I wish El Reg would make up its mind for once and for all whether it's an American rag or a British one and adopt the appropriate language. The semi-literate "I just put what my spell-checker suggests" mash-up of English and American [which seems endemic across most British news sites these days] is really starting to feck me off!

    1. Pen-y-gors

      Re: I Say Potato and You Say Pot-Ah-To

      I suspect CAT themselves aren't entirely sure - I've seen signs with two very different welsh translations of the name.

      1. Oldfogey

        Re: I Say Potato and You Say Pot-Ah-To

        The Oxford English Dictionary gives both as acceptable spellings.

        CAT is pretty much half-way between North and South Wales. The Welsh spoke in the two areas is not exactly the same language.

  13. Pen-y-gors

    Shameless plug

    Excellent article, and I agree that the place is well worth a visit, as is King Arthur's Labrynth.

    And the shameless plug...when going from Machynlleth to Aberystwyth (or vice versa) do stop off at Caffi Cletwr in Tre'r Ddol (half way between Mach and Aber). It's an excellent community-owned and run cafe and local shop (with a surprising range of tasty stuff), staffed mainly by volunteers, and a venture well worth supporting. [Declaration of interest: I'm one of the volunteers!] Oh yes, and there's free WiFi (have to include the IT angle).

    1. DasWezel

      Re: Shameless plug

      You forgot the Corris Railway, a couple of miles up the road. No IT angle, tech, or renewable energy as such, just a lovely small preserved narrow-gauge steam railway. :-)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Shameless plug

      We will make ma point of doing just that next time we go that way :-)

  14. Yugguy


    I love funicular railways. Been on the Lyton one many times. I love the concept.

  15. Tim Jenkins

    ...despite its fluffy image, the centre eschews cloud computing....

    It's true, we don't like the use of coal to power data centres, but we're also on the ragged end of 5km of copper from the Machynlleth exchange, so our ADSLs run a wee bit slow for anything cloudy (about 1.5Mbs split between 40 users today). Hopefully the loops of 96-core fibre currently dangling from phone poles up the A487 courtesy of the Broadband Cymru project will speed things up a bit, if they ever get connected....

    1. DasWezel

      Re: ...despite its fluffy image, the centre eschews cloud computing....

      I'm amazed the aforementioned fibre hasn't been taken out permanently by a tree. Lost count of the number of times the railway mess landline at Maespoeth got taken out by the buggers a few years back!

      Sods law says you'll get connected for less than a week before the road's blocked again by splintered remains of tree and fibre...

  16. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    "renewable energy:" .."needs to be a well thought-out integration of different technologies"

    So a bit subtle for the Civil Servants of the UK Govt to grasp then.

    One energy source at a time (coal, nuclear, gas) seems to be about all they can manage to get their little heads around.

    1. MrXavia

      Re: "renewable energy:" .."needs to be a well thought-out integration of different technologies"

      If they can just stop blighting the landscape in less windy areas with wind turbines... we have tons around me (thankfully none actually in line of sight of my house yet...) and when I drive out, they are always sitting there not turning except on the odd day in winter..

      Wind makes sense, offshore...

      tidal combined with wind makes even more sense.

      Nuclear Fission, (when designed to reprocess spent fuel and minimize waste of course) makes sense.

      What annoys me is when they talk about nuclear 'waste', if it is radioactive, its a potential power source...

      Wind on shore? makes little sense and blights the landscape....

      1. wookey

        Re: "renewable energy:" .."needs to be a well thought-out integration of different technologies"

        Onshore wind is the cheapest form of renewable energy at £80/MWh. That's cheaper than new coal plant at £105/MWh but more expensive than gas at £70/MWh. And currently we only have 13% wind penetration, and can easily go to 30% before we need to worry about grid changes, so there is loads of room for more wind. This is a very windy country and it makes sense to use it. Offshore works too, but costs significantly more at £115/MWh. Your assertion that 'offshore makes sense', but 'onshore doesn't' seems to be based entirely on anecdote.

        And I visited CAT some years ago (before the fancy new centre) and found it very interesting. Much better engineering:hippy ratio than I had expected. They have lots of good stuff on low-energy building.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    They used to make things in Wales, sadly not any more, even the flags are made in China and the fudge is made in Poland.

  18. Roadcrew

    Over 35 years already, is it?

    Used to drop in at C.A.T. when our kids were little - en route to (or returning from) our annual Tal-y-bont holiday chalet, back around 1978/9.

    Learned how to make a half-decent hot water solar panel there, using an old heating radiator, double glazing units, black paint and straw/paper insulation. Thoroughly cleaning out the old rad and removing any layers of previous paint was part of the recipe, iirc.

    It was -amazing- how much heat this would impart to a tank full of water, even on a typically not-very-sunny day near the middle of England.

    On a sunny one, it was too hot to bathe in.

    Yes, really.

    The people there really impressed us, helped to change my thinking too.

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