In 1985 flames lit the night sky and made the national news. Rhosygilwen near Cardigan, was on fire. The local hydrant was exhausted, the fire burned for 24 hours.
The gothic mansion was gutted, but the heart of its magnificence survived including the intricately carved oak staircase, panels and doors.
Roll forward ten years, inside the re-roofed mansion Brenda Squires and Glen Peters are mulling over whether they should do the irrational and buy the unwanted building. It had been on the market 18 months with the horrendous costs of repair deflecting buyers. They were standing in the drawing room with a friend who was checking for woodworm, dry and wet rot. It was late spring, the evening sun came in through the murky windows. While they talked their wood rot specialist tried out the grand piano. Schubert filled the dusty sunshine, replacing words and rational thought. The potential of the place entered in the stillness and the sunlight, a ghost of things past and future. ‘This was our epiphany moment’ recalled Brenda. Rhosygilwen, with its history of connection to cultural events and the local community, had bought them.
The seven generation Colby dynasty provided the stained glass windows for
and concerts and socials at the mansion which were loved by local residents. Subsequent owners held literary and musical evenings. Now Brenda and Peter as the new owners were asked to continue these, and Rhosygilwen as a cultural centre took off.
Piano recitals, string quartets, orchestral concerts, book-launches, opera, folk song, craft and art markets, exhibitions, literary evenings, theatre and speakers, for ten years the beautiful mansion in its velvet 50 acres blossomed as a cultural hub. But their 90 person capacity was becoming a restriction, furthermore new regulations for public entertainment presented Glen and Brenda with a dilemma: They had four choices: stop public events altogether, continue in breach of regulations, do the ugly but necessary work to meet them, or build a purpose built hall. This last was their choice.
Glen had a senior post in Price Waterhouse Cooper, one of the four giant global financial services companies based in
, second in size only to Deloitte. Hence he had both money to invest and an overview of the
and global economy and their future. From his perspective sustainable building and energy was imperative, not just for ethical reasons but for practical survival.
The concert hall that they built was at the front edge of green building; It is a green timber building, made of oak from certified forests in France, as the UK lacked the timber, its southern conservatory captures passive solar gain, super insulation plus under-floor heating from a ground source heat pump gives perfect even warmth, and some early photovoltaic panels top the green building which took two years to get through planning. There were lessons to learn along the way, such as the power of wind to destroy flimsy conservatory doors, but the hall is in continual use. ‘It is booked every weekend this year’ Brenda reported. ‘Today for example there are multiple events back to back’. While green structure and energy is important the hall includes large catering and dining areas because food self-sufficiency is seen as vital. Brenda detailed their menus using just-picked fruits, vegetables and salads.
The urgent project after buying Rhosigilwen was to buy back the walled fruit and vegetable garden. Although totally overgrown and the glass-houses, potting and stabling blocks in tumble-down condition, full or brambles, broken tiles, rubbish, it was at last acquired. Glen knew the great secret of a garden is the gardener, and he asked someone eccentric and single minded enough for the mission. John Tomas tells his own breathless tale to visitors, of the restoration, and learning to swim by jumping in.
‘Glen was ever an entrepreneur’ said Brenda. There is no resting on laurels. When he retired from his city job he used his pension fund to invest in a 1 megaWatt photo-voltaic field scale array ‘There was hair-pulling anxiety once we knew the feed-in-tariff was about to end. Anything could have gone wrong, technical, human, planning.’. The panels were connected in July, the grant scheme ended on 1st August. It is one of the few large scale photovoltaic installations in the
to scrape in before the bar dropped, and the largest in
. If everyone lived in the relative electricity luxury of the families around me, it would take just 800 of these 6 acre arrays to power the homes of the 3 million people living in
Glen now came into the room, in a state of excitement. He had just been on the phone to the PV engineers in
. ‘They are performing 13% better than expected, 13% higher than they are rated to perform. the engineers are amazed. This is their first large array in the
, they had not taken into account our clear skies over Pembrokeshire’.
Glen had not merely ordered and paid for a PV array, with his background in energy he involved himself in every aspect. First the cost: The £3 per Watt he was quoted was already ‘aggressively competitive’. (My PV cost £5 per Watt). But Glen aimed lower. He found a new thin film technology which had not taken off yet. It combined the key features of low cost, longevity and higher than normal efficiency. Thin film is also better in our cloudy skies, working well in variable as well as lower light. Up to now thin film has been found to fade faster than polycrystalline silica cells, but not this iridium galenium alloy which retains 80% productivity after 20 years according to tests. It costs much less as it takes less energy to make and does not depend on ‘rare earth’ metals which mostly come from
which is restricting exports. Using less energy is crucial, normally the energy intensity needed to refine materials causes an unimpressive EROI (energy return on investment).
Because the company was pioneering, it leaped at this chance to enter the market. Then came the choice of installer. Tragically the tenders that were invited from
companies revealed that, according to Glen, the large scale installers in the
‘range between incompetent and rip-off’. Glen was dismayed and has contacted
, the Welsh government and his MP, to tackle this disaster for the country. He next went abroad, first to Germany where he gave installers 8 to 9 out of 10 (contrasting the 2 to 2.5 rating in UK), then to the Czech republic where he discovered ‘died-in-the-wool engineers operation out of an old war bunker’. Despite their coarse concrete office, Glen was inspired by their passion and allured by their price. But he insisted that 25% of the work was done by locals.
It was these that I met when I visited, laying cables, connecting to inverters and finishing the civil engineering. One thing that really struck me was the way that everyone you meet, whether cooking, laying cables or an owner shares the place with you, and behaves with relaxed welcoming courtesy. Brenda told me their downstairs was rather public, upstairs was their private home. As we talked we heard children rampaging upstairs. I found out later it was the children I had brought with me, Brenda must have known, yet not a feather was ruffled on my hostess.
Glen is not standing still. He has invested his retirement pension wisely to secure an income, (perhaps prescient of what shares were about to do). He foresees electricity prices of 20 or 30p kWh, meaning your own generator will bear long term dividends. The PV can also take over subsidising the arts activity (as government funds and his income are finishing) and he has creative ideas for using it to get rid of the huge energy bills of his mansion.
The plume of flame that lit the night sky in 1985 has been replaced by another beacon. Rhosigilwen has been in the national news with its innovative photovoltaic array. When we visited I was genuinely surprised to find the technology looked beautiful. I had expected it to seem alien and jarring in a green field. It was elegant, futuristic and inspiring.