Alan Lowdon: “Your generation is pressuring governments to adopt more sustainable technologies”

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In the most recent New Year’s Honours list, Durham alumnus and Professor in Practice Alan Lowdon received an OBE for services to UK-US offshore wind collaboration. An impressive list of career roles and university affiliations shows Lowdon’s lifelong dedication to the energy sector, all stemming from his passion for applied mathematics.

As a maths student myself, I’m always interested to find out why others choose to pursue it. It’s a subject like no other, and meeting others that decided to go down this strange, but wonderful, route in life is exciting. “[Maths] is fantastic”, says Lowdon. “It’s the purest of sciences and, I always say this — it’s the thing which underpins all scientific endeavour. If you can do maths […] you can do what you want really.”

I’m often told you can do anything with a maths degree, and as Lowdon puts it, “if you can solve hard partial differential equations, you can do most things”. But after years of hearing ‘finance’ and ‘teaching’ dominate conservations around careers for maths graduates, I really valued hearing Lowdon’s experiences of being such a highly trained mathematician leading a field where his colleagues don’t have a maths background.

He is, however, keen to stipulate that he is an applied mathematician, not a pure mathematician — “That’s a different breed all together!” Lowdon met his wife in a nightclub in Newcastle, who at the time was shocked because he didn’t “look like a guy who’s an applied mathematician”.

“They expect people to be sitting in the corner of a room with a pencil”, he says. Whilst a significant amount of my day is taken up puzzling over problems with a pencil (thankfully not in any corners), I really enjoyed listening to Lowdon expel all notion of a maths stereotype.

Lowdon notest that he comes from a mixed academic background. He was sponsored from first degree to PhD by Northern Engineering Industries (NEI) in the steam turbine generator division, so he was “in energy from the word go”. This took him from Aston, Teesside and Newcastle universities to Northumbria, and eventually Durham for his MBA. His first degree was in applied mathematics, where he discovered that “fluid dynamics was the stuff I took a shine to, and it took a shine to me”. He followed this with a PhD in fluid structure interaction — “I just love doing it”, Lowdon tells me.

“Then I got increasingly involved in new industrial technologies for power generation and the utilities sector, and ultimately that takes you into the latest tech, which is wind.” In recent years, offshore wind has grown in importance globally as a greater awareness of the climate crisis accelerated renewable energy production. Lowdon has been instrumental in delivering the first offshore wind collaborations between the UK and US, and is currently director of strategic development for the National Offshore Wind Institute in Massachusetts.

It is his passion and dedication to offshore renewables, together with his huge involvement in UK-US relations, that meant Lowdon was awarded an OBE. I ask him about the importance of transatlantic collaboration in offshore wind.

“Even in a pre-Brexit world it’s a really important thing, because the big collaborative activity is the fact that the UK has developed its offshore wind industry over the last 15 years or so […] and being able to bring those learnings to the US to avoid them making the mistakes that the UK made.”

“But, more importantly, bringing UK supply chain companies to the US to allow them to impart their knowledge and services and products to the US market is extremely important. And it kickstarts job creation both in the UK and the US.”

Lowdon took up his role in Massachusetts in 2019. I was curious to find out what working in the US’s renewable energy sector during Donald Trump’s presidency was like, and whether he saw repercussions from Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

“Trump’s direction had made it very difficult to push through these offshore wind schemes”

“There was a bit of a psychological break on the system there to accelerate offshore wind. The Federal Government, under Trump’s direction, of course, had made it very difficult for the regulatory authorities to push through these offshore wind schemes quick enough to make them commercially attractive. So there was a tolerance of this situation, because I do think that people […] didn’t think that Trump would get elected a second time”.

“Immediately when he was out of power, then the foot was put to the gas on bringing these offshore wind schemes forward quickly with funding.”

It’s clear how important the visibility of government backing is to bring these schemes forward, but in order for renewables to move forward even more they need full backing from the public as well. There was a lot of pressure put on the onshore wind industry to stop building, since turbines were seen to be visually unappealing and environmentally damaging. Lowdon says that “offshore wind was the big saviour, because the turbines are going in the ocean […] out of sight, out of mind”.

But people’s perceptions are changing.

“Your generation and generations to come are equally pressurising governments and pressurising systems to adopt more sustainable technologies.”

That being said, we are still a long way off from being completely powered by renewable sources. Regardless of public opinion and governmental climate pledges, the UK is still heavily reliant on gas-fired power stations, which are “easy to build, the technology is proven, they’re insurable and there is still sufficient gas left in the system to make them economically viable”. “It’s quite a delicate subject”, Lowdon says. “I think we’re not going to be seeing the day dawn when there’s no gas, that’s for sure. The UK could not function without gas-fired stations at the moment.”

With the energy price cap rising further still, and predictions that energy bills will become unaffordable for 27% of UK households, it may seem easy to think that the UK should start focussing more on generating energy from renewable sources. “In many ways it’s a function of being held hostage to gas, which is coming in from [certain] geopolitical parts of the world.”

“The UK could not function without gas fired power stations”

“The economic volatility of gas prices will throw a lot of people into fuel poverty over the next six months or so in the UK, and in other parts of Europe, but I do think it will make people sit back and think about the viability of offshore wind, wave and tidal. And also onshore wind will get a renaissance on the back of this.”

Lowdon could be right that this is the push the country needs to pursue renewable sources further, and recent graduates could be the key.

His role as Advisory Board Chair of the Durham Energy Institute (DEI) and Professor in Practice at DEI aims to increase Durham’s networks, enhance the research and industry impact, and provide support and mentoring to students and researchers – “[the role is] to connect Durham to the world!”

Lowdon says it’s possible to come at the renewables sector from a number of angles.

“Think of a subject and you can weave it into a wind farm permitting process.”

For anyone wanting to enter it as a career, this is great news, and as Lowdon alluded to, our generation will do anything we can to improve sustainability in power generation.

Despite the current situation of despair caused by rising energy prices and the threat of climate change (and climate change denialists) to our planet, my talk with Lowdon was illuminating.

There is hope for a stronger reliance on renewable technologies, and it does seem possible. The work done by Lowdon throughout his career so far, and his commitment to helping younger researchers achieve their innovative ideas, promises that we can reach global climate targets.

Image: Professor Alan Lowdon

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