Dr Larissa Nicholls


By Ms Nancy Van Nieuwenhove | 22rd April 2020

Dr Larissa Nicholls

Senior Research Fellow, Monash University

Research interests: Energy efficiency, energy policy, vulnerability, energy hardship, sustainable energy, health and wellbeing

Larissa Nicholls

Dr Larissa Nicholls is an industry research fellow for ‘Digital Energy Futures’ – an ARC Linkage project (2019-2022) partnering with the energy distributors Ausgrid and AusNet Services and the consumer advocacy body, Energy Consumers Australia. “The ARC linkage project is looking at how changing digital lifestyle trends will impact future household electricity demand – to assist electricity sector planning towards reliable and affordable electricity infrastructure and services”.

She studied Arts (languages) and Science with an Honours degree in immunology at Monash University, followed by a PhD Medicine (University of Melbourne). However, Larissa’s passion for sustainability took over and brought her on her energy journey. “My PhD was in microbiology. Studying how food poisoning bacteria colonise our bodies was fascinating. But now as a social scientist, I research the hows and whys of human life in their home environments, particularly in relation to energy. Understanding humans and society is urgent because, in the end, our wellbeing now and into the future is largely an outcome of the way we live”.

Larissa attributes her interest in and respect for the environment to growing up on a farm in rural Tasmania. “The environment was present in so much of daily life - rain, wind, heat, cold, sunlight, shade, vegetation and soil health. These all shaped what we could do and when and how successful or stressed the family would be that year. Our energy supply was less reliable, and we relied on rain for drinking, washing and showering water. Looking back shows me how much the energy and water services provided shape our practices”.

Having worked as a home energy assessor for government programs to help households make their homes more energy efficient, Larissa uses this experience with the challenges faced by households as a foundation for her energy research. Her focus is on the social dimensions of energy and the important role of energy in health and wellbeing. “How we produce, consume and integrate energy into our daily lives is central to wellbeing and to a more sustainable future.”

Larissa designs and conducts research that can be used to inform energy sector decision-making. She engages regularly with energy businesses, regulators and government. “It’s not just a matter of ‘changing behaviour’ of energy users – we need policies and programs to support households and achieve a shared outcome”.

Larissa believes that new energy and digital technologies will contribute to a more sustainable future but, to achieve the best outcomes, we need better understandings of how technologies get integrated into daily life. “It’s not just a matter of designing a new technology. As an energy assessor and researcher, I have visited many hundreds of households. I have toured their homes, discussed their lives, and investigated their energy use. All three are endlessly interesting and important parts of understanding the social dimensions of energy”.

Larissa’s energy research began at RMIT University (2011-2019). “My research there was focused on the links between energy, health, housing and urban planning”.

Larissa joined the Monash Emerging Technologies Research Lab in 2019 and is now working with Professor Sarah Pink and Associate Professor Yolande Strengers on digital and energy technology research projects. “I really like working with a multi-disciplinary team, who are all interested in the many facets of how new technologies impact our day to day life – not just looking at the tech in isolation but what it means for people, the way we interact and our wellbeing. The good and the bad – with a view to ensuring new tech is oriented more towards social good”.

The Emerging Technologies Lab is also involved in a trial of smart tech in older households, project with Deakin University. Deakin University researchers selected the smart devices and provide technology the support to the trial households. The Monash research team is evaluating how the technologies are impacting household practices and whether they provide benefits. It is anticipated that smart devices such as voice assistants, automated reminders, smart lights and robotic cleaning devices could help people age safely and independently in their own home. We want to understand the benefits and risks of these technologies for the elderly. It is fun visiting the trial participants in regional New South Wales to chat about the ups and downs of having new tech in their lives”.

With households in lockdown during the 2020 pandemic, Larissa is concerned about the impact on energy use and costs. Many households already struggle to pay energy bills and they can no longer use “second places” (workplace) and “third places” (cafés, libraries, community centres, etc) to keep warm and cool. “I would like to see governments and the energy sector come together to ensure all households can afford to keep warm during the pandemic lockdown. Most of Australia’s housing is energy inefficient so it costs a lot to heat. People will endure the cold – which will be bad for health and wellbeing – or face extra high energy bills. As an essential service, the energy system must meet human needs this winter”.

Larissa remains very interested in the relationships between microbes and humans. She is closely monitoring emerging medical technologies likely to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on daily life, society and the economy.

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