The History of NCAT


Since 1976 the National Center for Appropriate Technology has been serving economically disadvantaged people by providing information and access to appropriate technologies that can help improve their lives. During the organization’s rich and varied history, NCAT projects have ranged from low-tech to high-tech, addressing complex issues of housing, economics, and environmental quality. Weatherizing houses, training farmers, monitoring energy use, demonstrating renewable energy technology, testing new products and providing information on building construction are just a few of the many ways that NCAT has contributed to fostering healthy quality of life for everyone.

Appropriate Technology in America: The genesis of NCAT

During the oil embargo of 1973-74, Americans were rudely awakened. Oil, which had been cheap and abundant, and had fueled economic development and an affluent life-style, was unexpectedly turned off. Suddenly, Americans were faced with shortages and long lines at the gas pump. Then President Carter responded by initiating several energy conservation measures, including a weatherization program for low-income housing which was carried out through the Community Services Administration (CSA). However, despite a handsome budget and genuine interest on the part of Community Action Agencies who were assigned the work, little was known about how to apply weatherization technologies in low-income neighborhoods. And, to compound the problem, what was “appropriate” for one application might be inappropriate in another.It also became clear that although billions of dollars were being spent to develop high-technology solutions to the energy crisis, little was being dedicated to research, develop, and implement small-scale technologies which could directly address the energy needs of the poor. In 1974, a one-and-a-half day meeting on solar and other alternative energy sources was held in Washington, DC. Energy leaders from around the country attended, including Dr. Jerry Plunkett, who was to become the Director of the Magnetohydrodynamics (MHD) facility in Butte, Montana. (MHD is a high-technology coal conversion technology that was enthusiastically supported by former Montana U.S. Senator Mike Mansfield). At this and subsequent meetings, it was decided that inexpensive, non-energy intensive technologies should be developed to help low-income communities through the energy crisis. What was needed was a mechanism or organization that would work with Community Action Agencies around the country to develop appropriate technologies for low-income communities. Having already established a relationship with Senator Mansfield while developing the MHD Institute in Butte, Dr. Plunkett convinced the Senator to support a bill to fund a national center for appropriate technology. The center would, for the first time, develop technologies as a way to combat poverty. In 1975 and 1976, language was included in the Appropriations Reports which supported such a center under the Community Services Administration. In June 1975, an initial planning grant was issued by CSA to explore:

  • the potential benefits to be derived from encouraging the development of technologies appropriate to the needs of the poor; the different methods which might be effective in disseminating such information; the advantages or disadvantages of a single national center compared to regional centers; and
  • the relationship of such a center or centers to the community action network and the CSA administrative structure.


In September 1976, a proposal for the National Center for Appropriate Technology was submitted to the Community Services Administration and a grant of $3,086,546 was approved for Fiscal Year 1977. The Center was to be located in Butte, Montana.

1977-1981: Appropriate Technologies Demonstrations

Appropriate technology can mean many things to many people, partly because by definition it involves the idea that a technology “appropriate” to one set of circumstances is not necessarily appropriate for another. When NCAT was organized the concept of appropriate technology was narrowed to technologies and processes that are appropriate to the resources and needs of low-income communities. It was in this context that NCAT outlined the following profile of appropriate technologies:

  • simple to apply;
  • not capital intensive;
  • not energy intensive (requiring little non-renewable energy to do, build, or maintain);
  • use local resources and labor;
  • and nurture the environment and human health.


Using these criteria, the goal was for NCAT to “help low-income communities find better ways to do things that will improve the quality of life, and that will be doable with the skills and resources at hand. This will involve problem identification and information sharing, problem solving and research and development, and the support of local testing and demonstrations in the communities themselves.” Because one of the biggest concerns to low-income people at the time was the energy crisis, NCAT agreed to dedicate the first year of its program to the research and development of energy-related technologies to help the poor, and to provide technical assistance to the CSA Weatherization Project. The initial program included three areas:

  • information exchange, outreach, education and technical assistance, where NCAT staff met with community action leaders, identifying local needs; research, development, and technical support of technologies identified as a result of this information exchange; and
  • a grants program for technology demonstrations that included technical support and evaluation.


From 1977 to 1981, NCAT funded 370 appropriate technology demonstration projects, held more than 50 hands-on workshops and training sessions for community action leaders and low-income people, and published over 100 technical and consumer publications. Although the main focus of the program was on renewable energy and conservation, NCAT also worked on housing issues, food production, transportation, economic development, and jobs.

1981- 1984: Appropriate Technology Transfer

With the advent of the Reagan administration, and the termination of the Community Services Administration, NCAT found itself without a sponsoring agency in Washington. Staff dropped from over 100 to five. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) also found itself with thousands of final reports and reports in progress from its newly dismantled Appropriate Technology Small Grants Program. Since the rallying cry of the first Reagan administration was “technology transfer,” the DOE designed a program to evaluate and then transfer the information developed during its multi-million dollar program. In 1983, DOE contracted with NCAT to evaluate the 2,200 final reports, provide technical assistance to individuals trying to develop their projects both technically and commercially, and then prepare 13 publications based on the most useful information. NCAT was back in business. New and returning technical specialists and writers provided one-on-one technical assistance to technologists, and built a database of technical information based on the small grant projects funded by the DOE. This database became the Appropriate Technology Management Information System (ATMIS). In the process, NCAT helped bring appropriate technologies into the mainstream of American life, with a publication series designed to help consumers, farmers, and small businesses to save energy. These 13 publications were distributed through state energy offices and sold through U.S. Government Printing Office bookstores around the country. More than 500,000 copies of these publications are now in use. During this time, although the so-called energy crisis was behind us, energy was still taking a significant chunk out of monthly American budgets. As a result, many technologies such as weatherization, superinsulation, recycling, cogeneration, and even car pooling, found a home in the American way of life. They were, after all, small-scale, easy to understand and implement, and they conserved energy. Furthermore, these were difficult transition years as NCAT went from a government grantee where it funded technology development to a government contractor where it had specific contract deliverables. However, staff remained committed to the promise of appropriate technology, even though a low-income focus became harder to maintain.

1984-1994: Energy Efficiency and Renewables Technology Transfer

Having met its contract obligations, NCAT was once again faced with losing its primary source of support. In response, NCAT responded by designing an information program to transfer the wealth of energy-related information and expertise it had now acquired. The National Appropriate Technology Assistance Service (NATAS) was designed to “transfer” the technologies in which DOE and other agencies had invested over the previous decade. It was also designed with the understanding that many of these technologies had evolved to the point that they had been accepted (if not fully understood) by the marketplace. The program was also designed to help inventors and small businesses commercialize their energy-related products. NATAS was a toll-free phone access, technical assistance service for people interested in energy conservation and renewable energy technologies. The users of this service included individuals, local, state and federal governments, energy entrepreneurs, community organizations and businesses. The program was operated from Butte, Montana, from 1984-1994 and staff responded to over 80,000 requests for assistance. To diversify, NCAT started soliciting contracts from the private sector, most notably utilities, to accomplish its energy research agenda. Using its background in energy conservation and expertise in technology performance documentation, NCAT contracted with national laboratories and utility companies to research, monitor, and analyze the energy savings of particular conservation measures. Often NCAT worked as a subcontractor installing monitoring devices but, over time, NCAT developed the capability to design and implement entire projects. And, because energy use in low-income housing is an area of concern for NCAT and utility companies, energy monitoring research work continued to expand with a renewed emphasis on low-income energy problems. During this period, five thermally identical houses were constructed in Montana using an NCAT house plan. Energy consumption on all appliances was monitored and documented. A slide show and workbook on superinsulation were developed and a technical conference was held in Butte, Montana, bringing together housing researchers from the U.S. and Canada. Open houses and educational sessions were held for owners, builders, real estate agents, and lenders. Indoor air quality and residential heat recovery ventilators were also tested. Another important accomplishment during this period was the publication in 1985 of a survey of weatherization agencies to determine the status of mobile home weatherization in America. At that time, an estimated 4 million moderate-to-low-income families lived in mobile homes. The results of this survey, “Mobile Home Weatherization: A Status Report,” recommended that more work be undertaken to document successful weatherization measures. Much of the later work in mobile home weatherization has been based on the needs discovered with this survey. This survey followed the tradition of several NCAT policy papers produced during earlier years to define the role of appropriate technology in public policy. Past topics included appropriate technology and the poor, jobs, and community resources management. In 1988, NCAT received a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to operate a Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program Clearinghouse. NCAT continues to operate the LIHEAP Clearinghouse, providing information about innovative LIHEAP programmatic, administrative and leveraging variations for state, tribal and local LIHEAP directors, utilities, utility regulatory commissions, and nonprofit energy organizations.

SUSTAINABILITY: 1987 to the Present

A significant development during recent years was the funding of the Appropriate Technology Transfer to Rural Areas (ATTRA). NCAT staff developed the concept of ATTRA over two years, a time when increasing attention was being directed toward a national need to develop a more sustainable and environmentally benign agricultural industry. Using the framework of NATAS, NCAT staff developed and proposed to Congress the ATTRA project, which was funded in 1987 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The project serves farmers, ranchers, Cooperative Extension agents, and others interested in reducing chemical inputs, conserving soils and water, and/or diversifying their agriculture operations. This project is based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and is staffed by a variety of agriculture technical specialists who respond to approximately 30,000 inquiries by phone or mail each year. The success of the ATTRA program has served as a springboard for a number of other sustainability and agriculture-related programs at NCAT. For example, under current and recent agriculture programs, NCAT:

  • helps coordinate a training program for USDA Cooperative Extension Service agents in sustainable agriculture in western and southern regions;
  • trains farmer and agency staff on sustainable beef production; convenes farmers around the country to discuss and plan farm energy issues;
  • educates and trains communities of low-income Hispanic farmers on sustainable agricultural methods;
  • works with Montana ranchers to promote energy efficient irrigation and water management practices assists low-income farm families on a “pastured poultry” project;
  • helped design an approach to managing agricultural pests through Integrated Pest Management at two national wildlife refuges;
  • coordinated an outreach project designed to disseminate research findings and policy implications on sustainable agriculture;
  • and designed and conducted scheduled irrigation and water management projects that resulted in water and energy savings of 33 percent each.


The 1990’s saw a revolution in electronic information technology, culminating in the widespread use of the Internet as the dominant information dissemination method for many organizations and companies. Almost daily, it seemed, organizations were creating Internet home pages with hundreds of links to other information sources and organizations, and NCAT was at the forefront of this trend. From 1995 to 2005, NCAT operated an Internet site on sustainable development that it created for the U.S. Department of Energy. In 2005 funding of this site was transferred to a group of supporting organizations. The Smart Communities Network features daily news, recent articles and publications on sustainable development, a selection of model city codes and ordinances that promote sustainable development, and sustainable development “success stories” from across the United States. The site receives thousands of unique visitors each month. NCAT has also developed Internet web sites on sustainable technologies in the western Hemisphere, on rebuilding homes, businesses and communities more sustainably after a disaster, on environmentally responsible and affordable building construction, and on renewable energy in Montana. The organization has also compiled a CD-ROM tool kit for communities on sustainable development, and released numerous reports and publications.


NCAT has contributed substantially to the development of appropriate and sustainable technologies and to helping improve the lives of low-income families since 1976. During its first decade, its hands-on training and field demonstrations impacted thousands of communities and its how-to publications were read by hundreds of thousands. During its second decade, toll-free information services were accessed by over a million people. Now, during NCAT’s third decade, the impact of its Internet information services is worldwide and these services have the potential to reach millions, or possibly billions, of people. And, since technology plays such a critical role in American development, and the poor ­ almost by definition ­ have been denied access to these technologies, the need for technical solutions to help eliminate poverty and its impact has never been greater. NCAT has never been better prepared to meet that need than it is today, with a diverse and experienced staff covering the fields of sustainable agriculture, sustainable energy, and sustainable communities.

Helping People by championing small-scale, local, and sustainable solutions to reduce poverty, promote healthy communities, and protect natural resources.