Show Hide image

The future of energy: smarter technology, smarter behaviour

The future of energy in the UK is complex – it will have a whole host of variables in play.

The future of energy in the UK is complex – it will have a whole host of variables in play. These include the increased uptake of energy saving technologies, electric gadgets, electric vehicles and renewable technologies, the increase in the UK housing stock, how and where we will be getting our energy from and, perhaps most importantly but more difficult to predict, consumer usage behaviour. Whilst most of these variables are hard to predict accurately, there are some that we can control as long as people feel empowered to do so. From our perspective, greater empowerment over our behaviours and how we use technology is how we can all help shape the future of sustainable energy in the UK.

Domestic energy consumption

From the Energy Saving Trust’s research it is clear that changing domestic consumption habits could have a massive impact on the future of energy. The 2012 ‘Powering the Nation’ study revealed the true extent  of how much electricity is being used, and wasted, in the average UK home. The findings revealed some unwelcome surprises which proved we are still getting to grips with domestic electricity use in the home. One of these unwelcome findings was that domestic background energy consumption is much higher than previously estimated – on average households are spending between £50 and £90 a year on appliances on standby.

Ultimately we all need to use less power and be more energy efficient when we are using energy at home.


One way to offset this expected increase in electricity demand is through the development of smarter technologies and appliances. Smart appliances use power management technology and advanced control features which enables consumers to better manage their energy use. In turn this will lead to reductions in the cost of energy use and lower carbon emissions. This also offers energy companies increased visibility and information about the energy habits of consumers which can help them deliver at times of peak energy demand.

Smart technologies and appliances are set to develop rapidly within the next decade as both consumers and industry attempt to get a firm grip on the amount of energy being consumed within the home. Of those new smart technologies and appliances coming to the market in the next couple of years smart meters with visual displays are likely to take-off significantly, driven by the mass nationwide roll-out from 2014. Smart meters with visual displays will provide households with real-time information on their energy consumption bringing an end to labour intensive, costly and inaccurate billing.

The roll-out of smart meters is designed to provide households with more control over their energy consumption; without this control, consumers and householders will not be empowered to make decisions or take action to be more energy efficient. Enabling consumers to keep track of their energy use within the home means they can be empowered to make any changes accordingly, which in turn can lead to them saving money and reducing emissions in the home.

New technologies and appliances; however, are not necessarily the only answer for those consumers looking to be more energy efficient. Using the latest energy saving technologies needs to be combined with consumers behaving more sustainably in the home whilst being provided with ongoing advice. Without the right advice, new technology will not have the desired impact on energy use and consumption.

Positive actions = further challenges

From the variables that will have an impact on the future of energy in the UK, there are those with many positive benefits associated with them. The increased uptake of electric vehicles and associated renewable technologies will provide low-carbon benefits and reduce our environmental impact. However, with these benefits come fresh challenges to the UK’s energy supply, such as how we can make the necessary infrastructural changes to effect this decarbonisation of the grid.

In the past year the Energy Saving Trust has been undertaking work looking at future energy scenarios taking into account a host of variables and how this will impact on the grid. Whilst we cannot see into the future, we can model a range of scenarios which can help predict the future energy supply in the UK and how the grid can be prepared to deal with these different variables. Even though this will not be 100 per cent accurate, it will provide an evidence base for industry to make appropriate decisions to manage future energy supplies.

Industry responsibility?

A question often asked is where the responsibility for cutting carbon lies. Is it with government, industry or the consumer? Following the ‘Powering the Nation’ report, one of the main calls-to- actions was to industry. We wanted industry to look at the findings from the report and come back with solutions on how they can help consumers achieve greater energy efficiency in the home, whilst developing the most energy efficient products and services for them too.

However, whilst the Energy Saving Trust recognises the importance of industry to cutting carbon, it is strongly argued that this will only be achieved with support from the consumer. Ultimately we are the people that are using electrical gadgets in the home and only people we can get to grips with the extent of our energy-use. If consumers are being provided with the correct information and advice, along with the most energy efficient electrical appliances then there can be no excuse for not acting sustainably in the home.

A positive finding from separate research conducted by the Energy Saving Trust was that there is indeed a consumer appetite to behave more sustainably within the home. 75 per cent of people surveyed are looking for ways to reduce their energy bills, with 65 per cent even going as far to state that now times are harder economically they are more interested than ever before in how to save energy. With statistics as encouraging as these, there is no reason why consumers will not take their fair share of responsibility over the amount of energy they use at home.

Government clearly has an important role to play by developing policies that could fundamentally change the way people think of and use the energy consumed in their home. This, however, can only be achieved based upon research from organisations such as the Energy Saving Trust that help to inform the Government’s insight into domestic energy consumption.

Bleak future?

At the Energy Saving Trust we take a positive approach to dealing with increased energy consumption by trying to find the right solutions to address these issues. Demand for energy in homes across the UK will increase over the next five to ten years. However, rather than dwelling on this eventuality, we need to encourage positive action from industry, consumers and Government to be more energy efficient in the home and behave more sustainably. This will play a vital role in restricting investment demands on the grid during the next two decades.

Pound-for-pound using less energy is significantly cheaper than upgrading the grid to deal with increased energy demand. The challenge remains encouraging and empowering people to behave more sustainably in the home. This can be done through the latest smart technologies and appliances, but there is only so much this will achieve. The key is creating the right balance between developing new technologies and consumers being more energy efficient in the home. If we get this balance right then there’s no reason why there can’t be a cost effective and secure energy future for the UK.

Philip Sellwood is the Chief Executive of the Energy Saving Trust

The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.