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An interview with Trustee, Ajai Ahulwalia

8 June 2020

Author: The Greenpower Team

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Having celebrated World Environment Day (June 5) last week, we thought it would be an opportune moment to sit down - virtually - with one of our newest trustees, Ajai Ahulwalia.

Ajai is an electrical engineer by trade and after experiencing a Greenpower event first-hand in 2019, he was keen to get more involved with us. We spoke with Ajai to find out more about what drew him to Greenpower, his career, and why he’s passionate about renewable energy.

Can you tell us how you first came across Greenpower?

I previously lived in Norfolk and was part of a team building and operating Dudgeon Offshore Wind Farm. The project has a community fund that in total donates £100,000 each year to community projects in the Great Yarmouth and Necton area, and I was one of the people reviewing and judging applicants. One of the Greenpower teacher ambassadors, Matt Buck, is extremely passionate and he pitched Greenpower to us. It captured our imagination, and we awarded some funding to the initiative in Norfolk. 

What drew you to Greenpower?

I had the privilege of going to a couple of events, including the race at the Lotus track in Hethel. The weather was horrible but the buzz of it all and the participants’ enthusiasm was infectious, and I wanted to see if it was something I could be more involved in. 

Through the institute I am affiliated with, The IET, we are often informed that the UK has a lack of engineers coming through into industry. Seeing how Greenpower gets young people excited about STEM, it directly relates to this issue which made me even more interested. But let’s not forget that it’s more than that as well: the nature of the challenge has people trying to get sponsors, looking at liveries, exposing them to the commercial and business aspects of STEM careers.     

How did you come to be a Greenpower trustee?

It was quite fortuitous – Paul van Veggel, the CEO of Greenpower, was at the Lotus event and I was speaking to him to learn a bit more about the charity. By this point I was thinking to myself, ‘This is amazing, how do I become a bigger part of this?’. I asked Paul if he was looking for trustees, and he said yes, so we took it from there.  

This is an area I really want to explore in my role; bringing my engineering knowledge and my previous experience as a STEM ambassador to Greenpower.

Is there a moment during your time as a trustee that has really stood out for you?

At our Greenpower networking event in February 2020, held at the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET), we had a team of girls from Sarah Bonnell School speaking confidently at the event to a room full of adults. I was in awe, as I was never that brave at school! It was nice to see the messages really getting through; we know that fewer women and people from the BAME community choose to study STEM subjects and the great thing about Greenpower is that it can reach beyond the norm and encourage diversity and inclusion in this industry. 

Can you give us an overview of your career background?

I like to tell people I made my first wind turbine at 13-years-old! I think that was my first foray, but renewable energy always been of interest to me. I was also interested in fighter jets and wanted to become an aeronautical engineer. I didn’t get the grades I wanted to in order to get on to that degree at my chosen university, but they gave me the option of different one that matched my wider interests. 

I studied Systems Engineering at Loughborough University, and learned more about renewable energy through the modules I studied. When I graduated in 2006, the renewable energy industry wasn’t what it is today and I was unable to secure a job in that field, so I went to work in military aviation. But after a couple of years I decided to take a step back in order to join a graduate scheme with an energy company. This scheme was a great way of getting a full overview of the upstream energy industry as you get to do different rotations in different business units leading to be getting into renewable energy in 2010 and joining my current company, Equinor, in 2015. Now I’m working on the biggest offshore wind farm in the world, Dogger Bank, part of which is geographically close to Hull, where we held our first-ever Greenpower Street Race in 2019, so I feel there’s a nice parallel there.

Why is it important we continue to find innovations in renewable energy?

I believe we need to find solutions to mitigate the issues we face with climate change. Energy is really important to our lives, we use it in everything we do. As transport continues to become decarbonised, we’re going to need more electricity to power our electric vehicles, and electrical systems are going to become the backbone of how we live to a certain degree. In offshore wind, innovation has really driven the industry forward, and enabled us to now build wind farms that are of the same scale as conventional power plants. Over the last ten years we’ve seen huge strides in technological innovations, one being the size of the turbines. The newest models are taller than the Gherkin in London! Using bigger turbines has helped to reduce the cost of offshore wind, which means it can be deployed more and it’s cheaper for consumers, so innovation is really important for the continued growth of the industry.  

What roles do individuals and organisations have to play in a sustainable future?

A lot of countries are talking about a green recovery at the moment. We have an opportunity for society to look at how we lived, and ask ourselves, ‘Do we need to go back to the way things were before? Can we live our lives in a more environmentally friendly and climate change-aware way?’

Everyone has a role to play in a sustainable future. At an individual level we all have choices we make every day, whether it be how or if we travel, where we buy our food.

Through my day job, I have the privilege of being able to make even more of a difference. I get a great sense of satisfaction working for a company that builds and operates offshore wind farms, as I think the way we produce energy will have a huge part to play in a sustainable future. Today our wind farms produce enough electricity to power three quarters of a million homes with renewable electricity – that’s pretty cool. 

Why is it important to promote sustainability to young people?

In order to meet the climate change targets, we need to find technical and commercial solutions. What Greenpower does is give young people the opportunity to develop practical and interpersonal skills, and put them on a footing to become more experienced and aware of what it takes to find solutions. Building a kit car is a great example of how they can do that. For as much as young people can learn through textbooks at school, the best way to actually encourage them to learn and be successful is to be practical, and this is what Greenpower can give them on top of their academic education.

What emerging trends do you see in the renewable energy industry that particularly excite you?

Firstly, the mass scaling-up of offshore wind in the UK. In renewable energy you use what you’ve got, and we have one of the greatest wind resources in the world. Then the question is, how can that offshore wind be transformed into the energy we use on a daily basis. Yes, it can be electricity but how can we also transform that renewable energy, or a derivative of it, into another medium that can help us with heating and large-scale transport like aviation and maritime? At the same time, if we see the increase in electric vehicles we hope to see, then the need for electricity will be significantly greater. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring engineers or someone considering a career in renewable energy?

You’ve heard my story and it wasn’t a continuous path, I’ve had to take some hits and go back a few steps, or not progressed as fast with my career at points. You’ve got to persevere, you have got to keep trying despite hurdles you may face. There may be tough times so you need the strength of character to overcome those which is where a positive attitude helps. There’s a lot of things you can’t control but you can control how you deal with them, especially the difficult time. It might sound like a cliché, but try to find something you really enjoy. 

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