Eco-Stories: Julianne Tice – Energy Efficiency in Australia

Eco-Stories: Julianne Tice – Energy Efficiency in Australia

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. See the full interview in the video below.

Julianne is passionate about energy efficiency and social justice. With a background in environmental science, she moved to Australia in 2016 and used her energy efficiency knowledge to land a job as a research assistant at a Melbourne-based anti-poverty non-profit. There she learned about the social impact of environmental issues, which has led her to pursue a Master of Environment. With this degree, she hopes to shape environmental programs and policies to reduce emissions and minimize environmental impact while maximizing the benefits for the most vulnerable members of society.

This interview was recorded on November 18, 2019. 

Fiona Martin (FM): Julianne, do you want to start and tell me what you do, where you’re at, and what you got started in.

Julianne Tice (JT): Yeah sure. So, where do I start? I’ve been working in energy efficiency for a few years. I used to do energy audits in the US, did that for a couple of years, realized it wasn’t really my cup of tea. Going out to people’s houses, crawling through their attics, that sort of stuff, but it was good experience for what I’m doing now, which is doing energy and energy efficiency programs for low income people at a non-profit. Obviously that energy experience helped me get that job, and I really like this job now because not only am I doing the environmental side of things, helping people reduce their emissions through energy upgrades and things like that, but I’m also helping people who really need it through the low income, vulnerable, anti-poverty side of those programs, which is awesome. I really love that. That made me realize that I’m actually more interested in the social side of things rather than the technical side. I’m doing a Masters degree – Masters of Environment is the program – and it’s more focused on the social side of environmental issues, although there is a range of things you can do, but I’m focusing on development programs, social impact programs like policy and advocacy and that type of thing. 

FM: Great! 

JT: I’m finding that great. I just finished my first semester.

FM: Congratulations!

JT: Thank you. I finally have some time to do other things, so I’m working at that non-profit as well, part-time, and I’m going to start working at the Energy Efficiency Council of Australia as well, doing some social media stuff for them, which I never saw myself doing but here we are. 

It’s really exciting here. I feel like there’s a lot going on even for such a small city, and the energy efficiency space is really interesting to work in because the houses here are really awful in terms of energy efficiency. Winters here are worse for me than they were in Maryland, which sounds kind of funny because it doesn’t get as cold here, although in Melbourne, where I am, is the southernmost city except for Tazmania. It does get quite cold, but not as cold, as Maryland. It doesn’t snow or anything like that, but the houses can get the same temperature as it is outside, which is terrible! Terrible for normal people, but terrible for people who can’t do anything about it. People who rent their houses, like me, we can run our heater but if you’re running it all the time, it’s really expensive. We can’t put insulation in our house. Sometimes I see cracks in the wall or the floor. My partner’s house has literally cracks in the floor. You can see outside, and that’s really terrible. So part of what I want to do is work towards advocating for policies to improve energy efficiency standards, especially in rental houses, for people who can’t do anything about it themselves. And there’s no incentive for the landlord to do anything about it because they don’t live there. So yeah, that’s something I’m really interested in, especially since coming to Australia and realizing that it’s such a big problem here. And as well, on the environmental side of that, if you need to run your air conditioner or heating all the time because it’s really hot or cold, you’re just wasting energy, and putting out a lot of emissions. 

FM: Yeah. So are you from Maryland originally? Is that where you started?

JT: Yes.

FM: And did this opportunity to move to Australia just fall on your lap or was there something happening that got you over there?

JT: Yeah, kind of fell in my lap, I suppose. So I was doing that job, doing the energy auditing, and, I’m from Maryland, I went to school in Maryland, and started working in Maryland, and just wanted a change of scenery so started applying for jobs all over the country. Nothing was really working out. And then I went to Europe on holiday, met some Australian people, became friends with them, and then found out through a friend’s brother that I could do a working holiday visa here, where you can travel and work to fund your travels. That’s the whole point of it, to get people working in industries here like hospitality and tourism. So I did that for a year with the intention of staying here for a year, maybe longer, and I love it here so I’m still here. 

FM: I know quite a few people, with my background going between Scotland and US, I met tons of Aussies and there’s lots of Scottish people who do that working visa for a year so I’m aware of it. But good for you for staying on. I had many friends who wanted to stay on but it didn’t work out. 

JT: Yeah, it helps having an Australian partner. That is the easiest way that a lot of people find their way in. I tried going through the job sponsorship avenue last year and it did not work out. Yeah, really tough. I thought I detected some sort of accent so Scottish yeah. I have a friend in Edinburgh right now.

FM: Nice! I lived in Edinburgh before I left so I lived there for 2 years, and I lived in Glasgow before then. I studied at the University of Glasgow. 

So in your job in Maryland, you were doing energy efficiency checks. So was this something you fell into? Or did you always have an interest in people’s impact on the environment? Or is this something you realized in the middle of what you were doing – hey, this is something bigger than what I thought it was. 

JT: Yeah, I always had an interest in people’s impact on the environment. My undergrad degree is Environmental Science, concentrating on Environmental Health, so my interest is always the connection between people and the environment. How do people affect the environment, and how, in turn, does the environment affect them. So as people have all these intensive activities, especially energy use, that’s a huge one, how does that affect the environment? And as the environment degrades from those activities, depending on the route you chose, how does that affect human health? That’s what I studied in university. The health part is not so much what I’m focusing on now, but it really helped me understand how the two fit together. 

Working in the energy efficiency space is something that I just fell in to. It turns out that that’s where the money is, which is something that makes me a bit sad that not everyone cares about environmental issues and money is scarce, especially in some areas. I did want to work doing something in the outdoors. I tried water monitoring for a little while. I thought that’s what I really wanted to do. Luckily I found out that I didn’t really want to do that. Some people just want to go outside and be outside and work outside all the time. It wasn’t really for me, especially in Maryland in the winter, collecting water samples is pretty cold. And just a bit lonely and not fun. I decided I didn’t want to do that, but I ended up in college doing some energy-related internships just because those were the ones that paid, so that’s where I ended up. And ended up doing that energy efficiency internship after college, which turned into a job because they were the ones who would accept me and give me money. 

To begin with, I wasn’t completely thrilled with that because I felt like it wasn’t making that big of an impact, but now I realize it really is an area that is impactful because energy affects everyone. Everyone lives in a house that can be improved. Everyone goes to office buildings that use energy, or wherever they work. So there’s so much opportunity there to reduce that, which reduces gas emissions, which reduces impact on climate change. I find it to be a good thing. 

And as well with the energy efficiency, it’s something that people, even if they don’t care about environmental issues, which everyone should, obviously, it’s something that they can see a benefit from anyway because reducing energy reduces money, so that’s a really good way to get them to care about these types of things. We don’t even need to talk about climate or the environment, we can just talk about the money and that will get them to listen.

FM: So let’s talk about what you’re experiencing in Australia. You said you’re working for this non-profit because the houses really are not energy efficient. Is that due to poor building materials? Or the way things are built there without planning? Or, what do you think is contributing to that?

JT: Yeah, um, that’s a good question. I think it’s due to low building standards, so people building houses don’t have to build them to any… they have to build them to code. I don’t know a whole lot about the construction code, but I know that the construction code is updated every 3 years and it’s something that people are working on. It’s a really big thing. There are lots of non-profits and social groups here trying to improve those standards so that new houses that are being built have to be built to a standard that is more energy efficient, be more thermally comfortable for people, but that’s even a separate issue than, like I mentioned, the minimum energy efficiency standards for rental buildings, obviously. Those are existing buildings. Those have to be upgraded from what they already are. 

The reason why they’re built so poorly to begin with, the only reason I can think of is the construction code just not being high enough. If you’re building a house, you want to minimize your costs so why would anyone build to a higher standard if they don’t have to? I suppose that’s the reason why, but it doesn’t make sense because it does get down to 4°C in the winter here at night. So that’s like, you would know…

FM: Yeah, 4 x 2 + 30 is 38°F so in the 30s.

JT: Yeah, very cold so if you can’t afford to heat your house, and you’re just in a cold house alone at night… people die from cold here, almost 3,000 people a year actually die from cold, and people think of heat stress as the thing that is more harmful to health, and it is very bad, but cold is a big problem here in the inefficient and uncomfortable houses we have in this area. 

FM: Goodness, I honestly didn’t even think of that. When I think of Australia, we hear about the really high temperatures, hot summers, and also, I was going to ask you about the wildfires as well. That’s something that I haven’t really seen on the national news here in the US at all. I’ve only seen it on social media. From what I understand, there are fires happening in NSW and QLD. 

What we’re talking about right now are the real life effects of climate change on the ground. Like you said, people dying from cold, and people dying from extreme heat, and wildfires. So, I mean, what is it like on the ground right now? Because I know here, naturally with the wildfires we start hearing that this is an effect of climate change. Is that similar in Australia? Or is that sort of being dampened? Or where are they at?

JT: Yeah, so it’s interesting here because I live in, by far, the most progressive city in the country, so when I immediately think of in Australia and what people are thinking of here, I think of what’s going on here in Melbourne, but that is different from most of the rest of the country. There’s a lot of people living in rural areas here, there are lots of farmers. They don’t necessarily have the same opinions as people living here, so the thoughts of people I know here and people I work with and just the general consensus is that the wildfires are exacerbated by climate change because wildfires are a normal thing. They happen frequently here, but they have been worse in recent years. 

I know about 10 years ago, that might not be completely correct, there was a day in Melbourne that there were really horrible wildfires, and people died. I know people are dying there as well, but it’s even more unusual in Victoria because it’s a lot greener here and a bit less dry. So in New South Wales and rural areas of Queensland, it’s quite dry and there’s not so much moisture in the air so the wildfires are more common there, and they’re worse than normal at the moment. We definitely do have a sense that this is climate change, and Australia’s policies on climate change are not anything great to speak of. 

The Prime Minister at the moment has just been saying his “thoughts and prayers” are with people in the wildfires, but that’s not doing anything to help them, is it? It’s a bad situation. It’s also interesting being in a place where we’re not affected, at the moment, but of course that’s not to say that we could never be. We do have dry areas around here. It’s really horrible to watch from afar, but it’s something that’s very big in the news and everyone knows it’s happening. And I have thought about what this is like in the US, if people are hearing about it. Probably not, so…

FM: No, I mean we have our own spate of wildfires in California so that certainly has dominated the wildfire news cycle as well as the ones happening in Brazil. But even the ones happening in Amazonas in Brazil, that took like, I think it was 3 or 5 weeks for that to even hit any sort of news, so there was lots of talk about Bolsonaro, that administration, covering that up. 

I was going to ask you in regards to the current administration in Australia… I saw that the previous Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, had a few climate deniers in his cabinet. Someone had shared an article recently that was actually from 2015 about Maurice Newman, who was his business advisor, who basically said that climate change is a plot by the UN to manipulate everybody, to have a globalist society. And I don’t know much about Scott Morrison and his administration. It sounds like, if there is a change, maybe it hasn’t been a huge change. Is he just tiptoeing around it or is there a bit more progressiveness happening there?

JT: Uh, well, I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the photos of Scott Morrison and Trump being best buddies. 

FM: No…

JT: No change, no. It was really shocking at the most recent election. The polls showed that Labour, which is the more progressive political party, was going to win, and they didn’t. And people were really shocked, including myself. So no, nothing has really changed. 

Australia’s NDCs, nationally determined contributions, to the Paris Agreement are really low. They’re about 26-28% below 2005 levels, I believe, and so that’s barely a reduction at all. Our greenhouse gas emissions have been rising since 2014 when the carbon tax was removed. So Julia Gillard introduced a carbon tax in 2012 and that actually reduced emissions by, it’s hard to say how much was actually due to that, but during that period, emissions were reduced by about 4%, which is huge over 2 years. But since that was repealed by Tony Abbott, emissions have been rising the entire time. 

Our commitment to the Paris Agreement, I think by 2023, we’re supposed to reduce our emissions by that much. It is possible that it may actually happen, but it’s such a low commitment that it’s not even really saying anything that that target is met, if it really is. And Australia is a huge polluter. Our per capita emissions are huge. We mine coal here so if you’re accounting for that within our emissions, that makes it even higher. To just not be a leader in this area is embarrassing, really. 

The Pacific Island countries recently have been asking the Australian government for help because they’re already seeing the effects of climate change, being such small islands. They’re seeing sea level rise and things like that, and the Australian government recently pledged, I think, $500,000 or something like that to give them, which is really honestly, like a slap in the face. It’s nothing and just giving them money for what? I don’t know. And not saying that you’ll reduce your emissions or do anything physically to help them, or mitigate the problem. It’s just very sad. Hopefully that changes at some point, before it’s too late. You know, that’s something I’m working toward in some small way. 

A bigger movement. Also we have the Extinction Rebellion protests here, which are really quite big. I don’t know if you’ve heard much about those.

FM: I’ve heard about them in the UK and in Europe. I haven’t heard about them in Australia. I’ve not seen them in the US either. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not happening. I’m pretty sure our media wouldn’t cover it if it was. But it’s good to hear there’s stuff going on.

JT: Yeah. It’s good that there are things happening. We recently had an international mining and mineral resource conference here in Melbourne that was about 2 weeks ago, I believe. So people protested that. 

And Extinction Rebellion, their whole thing is non-violent protest. They’re truly non-violent. They’re just creating a disruption to get people to acknowledge or to expose the problem to people who may not be thinking of it otherwise so you know, minor traffic disruption or something like that. “Sorry to ruin your day” if that happens, but it’s kind of a necessary thing to express your voice and get yourself heard when the government’s not listening to you. So we had these protests about 2 weeks ago, and the police got really violent. They were on horses and running horses into the crowd. It’s kind of like running a car into a crowd. A horse is huge, and they knocked a few people over. There were rumors that one woman had two legs broken because of the horse trampling her. I’m not sure that she actually did have her legs broken, but she ended up in the hospital. That’s not acceptable behavior from the police. Spraying people with pepper spray and being violent. You know we’re a Westernized nation with technically free speech, although Australia doesn’t have free speech protected to the degree that America has, but we do have a right to protest and they’re not respecting that. I’m very proud of the people who were there and stuck with it. I wasn’t, sadly, because I was in the middle of my finals so I didn’t get a chance to get down there. 

Yeah, there’s a lot happening here and people are really trying to keep the movement going. We also had a strike for the Global Climate Strike on, I believe it was September 20th, and I think the organizers were expecting maybe 50,000 people, maybe less, and I believe about 150,000 people showed up. It was massive. It was really amazing. We’ll see where that goes.

FM: Yeah, I know you’ve made changes in your life in terms of what you’re doing, and then you’re moving forward with this Masters of Environment. So can you fill us in a little bit about what the educational apparatus is trying to train you for, or their view on moving this forward. It sounds like there is a lot of resistance in Australia, similar to in the US. I know when I met Aussies when I was in Europe, they would always be like “Australia is the little America”, and I’m like “I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing”. We have, just like you mentioned, the cities can be very progressive, but then you do get farmers and more rural areas. I certainly live in a more rural area, and that resistance is felt. 

So how do you see from the education you’re receiving, and the work that you’re doing on the ground, because I love that you have this component of not just the environmental aspect, but how the most vulnerable people are always going to be the ones that are most affected by climate change first. So, you know, that’s going to be, take it all the way back down to wildlife. Losing species every single day. And then to immigrants. And then to people stricken by poverty, and then people in small nations, and all that sort of stuff. It can be a “big thing”. So how do you see yourself, and how is your education preparing you, to try to move that forward in the next few years.

JT: Yeah, good question. You mentioned that Australia is the “little America”. Sadly it kind of is. So Australia is quite big geographically but population-wise is quite small. And I really see, the American influence is all over the world. It’s just the way it is, unfortunately. I think people here, maybe not so much in Melbourne, but there is a sense of America is exciting, or people want to be like America, and it’s not so different here. I think if you just got plopped down in an Australian city, it is quite European as well, but it’s not so different from America. That being said, it is different in many ways. We have much better social safety net here, so if you’re a citizen, there’s single payer health insurance here so people don’t have to pay hundreds and thousands of dollars for health insurance. There’s paid maternity leave and things like that so I, for myself, do see Australia as a better place to be in terms of lifestyle. Also, the wages are much higher. Yeah, that is great. 

But as far as how I’m being prepared by work and university… So the university I go to is, I think, quite progressive, so the program I’m in really acknowledges the whole picture. They acknowledge the West as having this huge influence on the entire world. So I’ve been taking development classes so I’ve really learned how the world has been structured and how developing countries have been told “you need to be like the West” and “you need to build up all your buildings and your industries” and those are very energy and emissions intensive. So that has pushed the whole world towards huge greenhouse emissions and climate change, which is the issue we have now. 

But the university I go to was one of the sponsors of the conference that people were protesting 2 weeks ago, which is a bit upsetting. I acknowledge that to have the lifestyles we have, to have computers and things like that, to do the work that we’re doing, we need resources that we need to mine for, but to do it in such an intensive way and have things break and to push this consumer culture on people, and to have the people that mine for these resources make such a profit at the expense of other people is not acceptable. So that’s the reason people were protesting. To have my university sponsoring that event, I don’t know, what can I say about that? It’s not great. 

But the way I think I’m being prepared, that’s a good question. The program I’m in is really big in the sense that there are so many subjects that I can choose from. It’s very different from many university courses in the sense that, in a lot of courses you’ll have a set of subjects you have to take, and you just take those and then you graduate. But I have a list of 200 or so subjects that I can take. That’s a bit overwhelming at times, but it also means I can do what I want, and there are different streams. Like you can just focus on climate change, or do development, which is what I’ve been doing. Or you can do more policy work, which is also the route I’m thinking of heading into because I do want to do some of that advocacy work, to especially advocate for vulnerable people through these environmental policies. 

I do feel that it’s preparing me in the way that I can choose what I want to do and tailor my experience to what I feel is going to make the biggest impact. And I do feel that the lectures and the staff are quite helpful in helping me figure out what will be the most helpful for me. I just had a course counseling appointment yesterday and I was worried they were going to say “oh, you know, just look at the list online and figure it out”. But they were really quite helpful in helping me figure out what skills do I need to work towards and what subjects are going to help me do that. So I find that really helpful in this program, and I’m really lucky to have ended up in this program. It’s a really well recognized university. 

And as far as work, I’m also really lucky to have these jobs even while I’m in university still, that are allowing me to have an impact while I’m studying. I find that to be great because, while I really love sitting in front of a computer writing an essay because I’m quite nerdy, at the same time I feel like I’m not doing anything, which is a bit silly because I know I’m working towards something so that I can do more in the future. But know just sitting in front of a computer in a library is not helping anyone immediately, but I know that is preparing me to do more good work in the future. But I do really like that job at the non-profit because, while I don’t necessarily want to be working directly with people for the rest of my life, I do get to see immediately the impact we’re having on people because I’m on the phone with people.

We just wrapped up one program helping people switch their energy retailers, so it’s not directly an environmental program. It’s more about helping vulnerable people. So Australia has a competitive energy market and people pay all different prices for their gas and electricity, which makes no sense. Some people will pay 20 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) while some people will pay 50 cents per kWh. I went into one guy’s home when I was just starting this job. Someone was training me. This guy had a learning disability. This is a lot of the people we’re helping. People whose first language is something other than English so they have a hard time navigating this whole system of figuring out how to switch to a better rate, where to find that information, and how to call the retailer to communicate with them. A lot of the times, something interesting that I found, with someone whose first language isn’t English, if they call up and speak to someone else whose first language isn’t English, they have a hard time understanding each other. So that’s a big issue for people. 

We work with a lot of older people as well who maybe don’t have computer skills, or patience even to do this kind of thing on their own. So this guy that I went to his house who has a learning disability, is getting charged 50 cents per kWh and just, you know, probably wouldn’t even know what other people are paying or know how to change that, or know that it’s a problem in the first place. And the energy companies are profiting out of putting out huge amounts of emissions and just charging people whatever they can get away with is truly disgusting. So being able to have an impact in that way is really meaningful for me. So yeah, I’m really lucky to be doing that type of work that I find is really impactful and I hope to be able to continue to do that throughout my degree and even more afterwards.

FM: Nice. So final question that I’m going to start asking everyone. If you could choose one thing, what is the one thing that someone can do right now to reduce their impact on the planet. What would you recommend?

JT: Oh wow, that’s really hard. I’m just going to think out loud. I’m of two minds. I mean everyone has an impact on the environment. Our individual actions do add up. One person in isolation doesn’t really have that much of an environmental impact. This is huge; people are small. You can’t really do that much, but multiply that by 7 billion people or if you just want to talk about people in the developed world, let’s say 1.5 to 2 billion, something like that. That is a huge impact, and I talk to a lot of people here who don’t think that individual behaviors have an impact, and that’s just not true. We all do have an impact, but at the same time, there are globalized corporations, energy companies, transnational companies that are the ones making the worst impact on the environment. So, in the face of that, what can you do? I don’t have an answer to that. These companies are so big and so powerful that we’re, unfortunately, not going to put them out of business any time soon. 

Honestly, I feel like, this is kind of cliché, but voting is such an important thing. Educating yourself on these issues. Speaking to others around you in a way that doesn’t alienate them, and helping them understand that these things are an issue and exercising your right to democracy and voting for someone who’s actually going to implement these policies, probably is the single biggest thing you can do. 

And to elaborate on that slightly, Australia has compulsory voting, so there is a fine for not voting. I think it’s $20 or something, not crazy, but they have elections on weekends, and you have to vote. It’s not like in America where if you’ve committed a crime, you’re not allowed to vote, which is a crime in itself. And where voting is on weekdays, and basically they’ll do anything to not let you vote if they can. So yeah, making sure, especially in America, making sure that you vote for people who want to make a change. Not all politicians, you know, I mean none, they’re all interested in money, but selecting the lesser evil is, I think, really, really important.

FM: Yes, use that vote! I remember the Australians I would meet in Europe would have to go vote. They had that compulsory voting. That’s, to me, really cool. I agree with what you said regarding our voting system. To have it on weekdays. Everywhere else I’ve been, even when I lived in Venezuela, they would shut down everything over the weekend. They even didn’t allow alcohol, which is crazy. They would make it a dry weekend so no drunk voting was allowed in Venezuela. But, um, we certainly could do better in the States. 

I appreciate that. I really appreciate your time, Julianne. I’m excited that you took this chance with me in having a little talk, and I look forward to staying in touch and hearing more about what you’re doing in Australia, and what your colleagues are doing. I’d love a chance to speak to any of them.

I think conversations are important to see how we can all work together because it’s going to be a global effort. It can’t just be, like you said, one person. It has to be global and it has to be everyone working towards the same thing. 

JT: Yeah, thank you for doing this. It was great chatting.