Yesterday, I visited the Centre for Alternative Technology in midWales. It was supposed to be a holiday trip, but I found myself looking at various buildings, techniques and features and wondering if and how they might apply to Melksham (and to the Campus in particular), and also what lesson could be learned about what NOT to do.
The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) is approached by what is said to be the world's steepest Cliff Lift - operated by water balance as you might expect in a "green environment". But there's more to it than that. Most water balance cliff lifts control their speed by friction braking, loosing energy to heat. In the case of the CAT system, that energy is recycled by a different braking system, and is then used to pump at least some of the water back up the hill to the upper holding pond. As it is, each opertion requires several hundred gallons of water to flow into a tank in the car that's starting at the top, so that it becomes heavier than the car that starts at the bottom, and as the two are roped onto the same drum at the top station, the heavy one descends pulling the lighter one up. When the descending car gets to the bottom, the water is released.
So - we have a system that's purely using the kinetic (?) energy stored in the water at the top on the hill, and has been put there by the Welsh rain (fortunatly holding off this week) from which it is refilled, without any "Cardon footprint" in operation. Yet even so, measures are having to be taken to conserve the other resources it uses.
Speaking with the gentleman operating the system at the top, we were told of no fewer than five braking systems, and of emergency evacuation systems if the cars get stuck halfway. A rare occurrence indeed and, we were informed, almost inevitably caused by one of the braking systems cutting in when it shouldn't. And I noted that there's quite a complex signalling and control system and lots of rules and regs being discreetly watched for and enforced, as us Joe Publics used the lift. And staff too - at top and bottom stations.
The picture shows the cliff lift worn, rustic. Grass growing between the tracks. And it gives the place a charm; it's like that all through CAT, with many of the features sprouting growth and looking well weathered and worn. Fair enough - some state "design life 15 years" and have been there for about that period, so you wouldn't expect to find them looking day-one smart, but at the same time I'm not sure about the "hippie" look and whether it's the look and feel we want to create in Melksham.
"Out of order" said a number of exhibits; disappointing, and I wondered if there's a reliability issue with some of the green agenda stuff - or is it that CAT is pushing the technology to the extreme, experimenting, and so must expect failures as well as successes as part of its ongoing operation and learning. Certainly the history of electircity supply has been through a number of stages, each seemingly lasting just a handful of years according to the displays.
So - summarising some of those lessons.
* Need to conserve resourses, not just the carbon footprint
* Need for health and safety, but taking care not to compromise the usability
* Does greener / more environmentally friendly mean more maintainince and staff?
* Leading edge rather than bleeding edge
* Does the environmental approach lead to a scruffy appearance?
But there are other lessons too - that a bright, welcoming, almost spectacular result can be simply achieved. Some pictures, painting 1000 words each!
(written 2012-05-23, updated 2012-06-02)
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