No hands to the pump!

Among the hundreds of files piling up on Chris Huhne's desk is a nice fat one marked "Renewable Heat Incentive" (RHI). He could easily sign
it off, but let's hope he doesn't. For lurking in there is a potential £35bn boondoggle that threatens to worsen energy supply problems and increase greenhouse-gas emissions.

Launched last winter by the then energy and climate change secretary, Ed Miliband, the RHI is intended to encourage people to heat their houses and water using solar panels, woodchip boilers and . . . heat pumps. These work on the same principle as a fridge, but in reverse, pumping heat from the outside to the inside. That way you get three or four times more heat in your house than you would by way of ordinary electric heating as used by toasters and immersion heaters.

The idea is that homeowners will be paid 7.5p per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of heat produced by air-source heat pumps (which pump heat from the air) and 7p for ground-source heat pumps, for a 20-year period, financed by a levy on everybody's energy bills. Payments will be based on a typical domestic heat requirement of 15,000kWh per year. So that's rather more than £1,000 per year, per installation, for 20 years.

But there's a problem. According to the Energy Saving Trust, carbon emissions are not actually reduced if air-source heat pumps replace gas or oil boilers, but only existing electric heating and coal-fired systems. Ground-source heat pumps are only slightly better. Yet the proposed guidelines do not specify where heat pumps should be installed to qualify for the subsidy. So the danger is that thousands of heat pumps will be drawing a subsidy of more than £1,000 a year, while delivering no emissions benefit.

Then it gets worse. Almost all the heat pumps on the market use HFC gases as a refrigerant - global warming gases about 2,000 times more powerful than CO2. So, the 2.5kg gas charge in a typical heat pump is equivalent to five tonnes of CO2. And what with routine leaks, discharges during repair, servicing and decommissioning at the end of a typical 20-year lifetime, the entire original charge and as much again could easily be lost to the atmosphere - pushing the purported greenhouse-gas benefit from small to negative.

What's more, demand for heat is greatest when temperatures are low. So if enough people switch from oil and gas to heat pumps, demand for electricity will soar during cold weather, when supplies are most stretched. Heat pumps also get less efficient in cold weather, so they will need even more electricity to keep homes warm.

The problem will be even more severe if we succeed in building thousands of new wind turbines. This is because the UK is smaller than typical weather systems, so from time to time high pressure can cover most of the country - and that means little wind to keep the turbines turning. When this happens in winter, low windpower output will coincide with high demand for electricity. The last thing we need is to increase demand further at such times, when we will need every megawatt of back-up power available.

According to a 2009 report, Scenarios for Renewable Heat Supply Capacity Growth to 2020, the UK is likely to have between 600,000 and 1.6 million heat pumps by 2020.

So the planned heat pump subsidy under the RHI could cost consumers between £13bn and £35bn, increase the UK's greenhouse-gas emissions and stretch electricity supplies at the worst time of year. The RHI file deserves Huhne's closest scrutiny, and a lot of red ink.

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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.