Not so crazy

The Centre for Alternative Technology is a workers' co-op that has pioneered clean energy in Wales. Amanda Roll-Pickering charts the evolution of a bright idea.

IT’S 1973 and a worldwide oil crisis is bringing down governments, restructuring the global economy and generating fear about the finite nature of natural resources: ‘What will we do when the oil runs out?’ is a question that needs answering.

Against this backdrop a group of young idealists, motivated by heartfelt concerns over the cumulative impact of ‘progress’, moved into a disused slate quarry in the centre of Wales. It was an opportunity to escape the consumerist outside world and to experiment with self-sufficient living. Their early technical innovations were fuelled by the freedom to design without bureaucratic constraints and driven by a basic need for food, heat and light. The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) was born.

These pioneers rebuilt ruined buildings, established gardens on ground with no natural soil and generated their own electricity. There was very little distinction between ‘work’ and ‘life’. The pay packet was seen not as wages but as a living allowance. Before long more than 20 people, including 10 children, were living on the site.

This unique combination of people, place and time gave rise to an abundance of creative innovation. People were willing to try out anything and everything in the name of living an environmentally responsible lifestyle. A constant influx of new people brought fresh ideas to explore.

There was nothing novel about harnessing the wind, sun or water – we’ve been doing it for thousands of years, after all. The difference here was the application of modern technology and materials to develop renewable resources to meet contemporary needs.

The organization was also eager to experiment with working structures and close the traditional gaps between secretaries and directors, builders and architects, engineers and telephonists, thinkers and doers. It chose to adopt, and adapt, a traditional co-operative model.

Ogres and others

In the early days all decisions were taken by all staff at a Monday meeting. The principle was that everyone should be involved. So the meetings frequently took far longer than was strictly necessary to reach a decision, and the topics were wide-ranging. Eager to avoid an alienating hierarchy, the Centre relied on face-to-face interaction. The directness of the meeting, and shared knowledge, made it difficult for anyone to acquire unreasonable power and influence.

Many found the Monday meeting exhausting, irritating and often tedious. But it also provided an inexperienced, changing workforce with an ecological view on many different activities. As specializations developed it still enabled the cook to comment on the engineer, the bookseller to confront the director – and everyone to question whether they wanted specialization anyway. There was an ‘ogre of the week’ – a rota duty during which everybody in turn fed back decisions and chased up the jobs that needed doing.

Not everybody felt included in the egalitarian structure. Rick Dance joined as a volunteer in 1983 and remembers a wide divide between the paid and unpaid staff. Volunteers were not considered part of the co-op. He says: ‘We launched a campaign to bring equal rights to all those involved with the organization. We made badges to wear that were based on the then-popular “Nuclear power? No thanks” symbol. They read “ Volunteer power? Yes please.”’ Rick’s campaign was not a success – although he did make it into the paid ranks a couple of years later.

In the early days there were 20 to 30 paid staff. Today there are more than 100. In an organization this size it is just not possible for everybody to have a say in every decision. Instead there is an elected committee, fondly known as ‘Overview’, which facilitates decision-making at a weekly meeting. Theoretically, any one person can block any decision. But there is a mutual understanding that if you are in the minority you record your objection and then step aside.

Gear change

A commitment to ‘inspire, inform and enable’ the public gradually turned the Centre away from communitarian self-suffi ciency towards a more outward-looking emphasis. Formal educational activities became important.

Ann MacGarry, one of CAT’s education officers, was attracted to the combination of technology, ideas and work structure. Her definition of a co-operative – and definitions do vary – is taking responsibility and making most of the opportunity to control, fulfil oneself and release creativity. She says: ‘The principles of our way of working are part of the concept of sustainability: empowering people. It works remarkably well. The place goes from strength to strength, does good work, draws good people and we stick to our principles. The biggest challenge is how to deal with people who don’t pull their weight. We have tried different methods. I hope that in the future we’ll be leaders in the field of resolving these challenges. And I hope we’ll keep the co-operative aspect.’

It was often the case that experiments fell short of producing a commercially viable product. New ideas were tried out and then taken up by others, making way for the staff to turn their hands to the next crazy idea. CAT has produced several offshoot companies with their own successful innovations, chief among them Dulas (see ([Active Interest]), Aber Instruments and Ecogen.

In the mid-1980s there was a keen debate between those who wanted to revive the original communitarian ideals and those pushing for a fully professional institution. By the end of the decade consensus moved decisively in the direction of major new developments, labelled ‘The Gear Change’.

It marked a decisive shift in finances and attitudes. A public limited company was formed and issued shares. The money was used to build a water-powered Cliff Railway and rebuild large parts of the visitor centre. Although a quarter of the staff continued to live on the site, the residences were no longer visible to visitors and the ‘living experiment’ expanded outwards into the town and surrounding area.

Future imperative

In the 1990s CAT’s ideas became accepted more widely and the demand for information about sustainable technologies rapidly increased. Consultancy work boomed. New partnerships began with corporate and public bodies, funding research into solar photovoltaics, composting, biofuels and environmental building materials. With the emphasis on autonomy rather than self-suffi ciency, surplus electricity generated on-site is now exported to the National Grid and imported at times of high demand.

‘The principles of our way of working are part of the concept of sustainability: empowering people’

Wage parity continues, although the low level of wages has become a recurring issue. Staff are still attracted by a higher quality of life rather than a higher wage. People from around the world visit the Centre, or come to stay on a residential course. It has become one of Wales’s major tourist attractions and the largest single employer in the region.

The CAT has come a long way in 30 years, evolving to manage expansion while continuing to challenge mainstream society to live more sustainably. That work is far from complete; we are still facing an energy crisis, potentially as serious as the one which inspired the pioneers who set up the Centre in the 1970s.

The obvious solution is to reclaim our energy. CAT is supporting local communities to create their own wind farms and biomass heating schemes (see Sustained Energy), literally giving the power back to the people. This model enables ordinary people to decide and control their own energy supply.

Sixty years ago Britain’s energy need was met by state-controlled organizations that mined coal. Just 20 years ago the Thatcher Government squashed trade unions with privatization, opening the energy sector to the free market. Transnational power companies now call the shots. But the Government is looking to renewable energy to reduce climate-change emissions and provide a clean-energy future.

This is a real opportunity for communities to mobilize their support for renewable power and bring the energy economy home. With organizations like CAT at the forefront of small-scale renewable energy production, the future could lie with co-operatives.

Amanda Roll-Pickering is the Media Officer at the Centre for Alternative Technology. She previously worked as a renewable energy campaigner in the US and Europe.

Sustained energy

Whether you love them or hate them, wind turbines are certainly visible. But if, when you see one you think of the money and jobs being created in the local area, you may realize that turbines bring many benefits that aren’t immediately obvious. Bro Dyfi Community Renewables (BDCR) was originally set up to meet local needs. Their first major project, in 2001, was to erect a 75-kilowatt wind turbine, owned by members of the surrounding community and selling the energy generated to CAT. Community members founded the group and raised money for the project by selling shares, which pay an annual dividend. There was a maximum investment of £1,000 ($1,800) to prevent the group becoming dominated by one or two individuals. Many invested because they felt it was a good thing to do; others worked on the erection of the turbine in exchange for shares. The community ownership of renewable energy is new to Britain but it is fast gaining in popularity. A group called Baywind supports community renewable energy projects, and in this case they underwrote the project by offering to buy any unsold shares. The co-operative management of BDCR is important because it means that the energy is owned by those who are closest to the ‘coal face’. It is managed by unpaid people acting in the best interests of the community. There is a wide variety of members with many skills to offer: engineers, entrepreneurs, electricians, accountants and experienced co-op workers. And anybody who wishes to be part of the decision-making process is welcome.

Active interest

Dulas is a renewable energy company that began its life at CAT as a small group of engineers with a research and development grant. They pioneered alternative technology for application in developing countries, including a ‘bug’ meter which took a bacterial reading, and a solar-powered vaccine fridge. During the Gear Change era (see ([main article]), Dulas left CAT and went solo. They now have over 30 staff and solar, hydro and environment departments. Their co-operative structure reflects common principles, goals and ownership. As well as sharing out jobs such as buildings and vehicle maintenance, they cook and eat lunch together. Everybody takes on a non-job responsibility. There is no IT support person; this role might be filled by a hydro-engineer. Anybody who works more than 24 hours a week for Dulas has to become a shareholder, following their six-month probation period. Each half-day worked is equivalent to one share. The first share each worker receives is an ‘A’ share, which is a voting share; all subsequent shares are ‘B’ (non-voting) shares. All of the company’s decision-making is reached by consensus. A board of five directors is elected annually and, rather than putting themselves forward for election, workers must provide a good reason why they are unwilling to stand that year. The directors take fast-track decisions. While these decisions do not need ratifying by the full staff body, anybody can object, so if anything is anathema to the company there are opportunities for change. It takes two workers to call an Emergency General Meeting (EGM) at which consensus must be reached to pass a vote of no confidence in the Board. According to co-op member Alison Banton: ‘It might sound bizarre that theoretically one person can have their own way on a decision, but it doesn’t happen like that in practice. When faced with an immediate decision, it’s amazing how sensibly and quickly we can work.’