Is Alternative Technology still relevant today?


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Welcome to the latest weekly blog feature! For the next 13-14 weeks we are going to be producing posts on different renewable energy sources. These posts will cover a range of topics from the basics of biomass to the construction of the cities of the future.

We can’t begin a comprehensive series on renewable energy without first addressing CAT’s long and varied history in the field of Alternative Technology. In the early 1970s when the term AT was coined and CAT was created, the world was just opening up to the idea that traditional technology may not be the only solution to global energy problems. Alternative Technology provided an umbrella term for all the systems and designs that moved beyond the confines of the traditional scientific ideas of the time. What people took from AT however, varied hugely, as the minutes from an early CAT meeting shows:

Notes from 7th – 10th November 1974

Throughout AT’s 40 year history no one definition has been universally accepted. Some people may view this as a difficulty, especially when running a centre where ‘alternative’ and ‘technology’ figure prominently in the title. Yet the malleability of AT meant that people took from it what they wanted. CAT built itself upon the term, creating its own mission statement and definition of AT in the process.

So what were Alternative Technologies back in the 1970s? A CAT mission statement from April 1974 outlines some of the intended projects in this area including, but not limited to: wind and water power, solar, gas, energy storage, heat exchangers, distillation and low energy building. It is a testament to the ingenuity and forethought of the early workers at CAT that Alternative Technologies in the 70s have become mainstream ideas today.

Over the years people have argued that renewable energy technology has become so commonplace, the phrase AT is now defunct. And yet the systems and ideas that AT contains, systems and ideas that have proven real world applications, are still seen as the alternative to other, more harmful ways of generating energy. Until such a time when solar, wind and water-based technologies are a familiar site in the UK and around the world, Alternative Technology will continue to be relevant. It may just be that the definition, as it has done many times in the past, will change.

People who question the relevance of Alternative Technology in this day and age should also consider a few other aspects that make AT a worthy proposition. In March of 2012 the Architectural Association in London hosted the AT@40 conference, marking 40 years since the concept gained such interest and momentum. You can read Paul Allen’s account of the conference here. One of the key messages taken from the conference, according to Paul, is the fact that “Alternative Technology focuses on the benefit to humans as well as to economies.” AT provides a different model for supplying energy, one that allows for small-scale solutions suited to individuals or communities.

Installing the first hydro turbine at CAT

Another vital component of the theory is constant self-auditing. Peter Harper, who coined the phrase in the early 1970s, explains how the word ‘technology’ helps to keep AT’s development grounded: “it means that things have got to work; that you submit to the Rules of Nature and cannot simply live in a dream fantasy land.” Alternative Technology is focused on practicality and rigorous testing, one of CAT’s key tenets when it was founded as a ‘living laboratory’ for sustainability, and something it continues to develop to this day.

Looking back at the history of Alternative Technology it is clear that the phrase itself is decidedly unclear. AT is a broad term that with many different definitions, yet it spawned a multitude of ideas and led to the development of non-fossil fuel energy sources. Next week we will start to look at these a little more closely, starting with a post on the Green Deal in relation to renewable energy.