Brief Biography of Richard F. Hirsh

Richard Hirsh is a professor of History of Technology and Science & Technology Studies at Virginia Tech. His academic background is rather unusual, having pursued both science and history in college and graduate school. While he has an undergraduate degree in American history, he picked up a Master's degree in Physics and a Ph.D. in History of Science from the University of Wisconsin. Along the way, he worked for two summers as a historian for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  He also worked as a research fellow for two years at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

Richard became interested in the electric utility industry in 1980 after being appointed chairman of a citizen's committee whose job was to create a new rate structure for the Gainesville (Florida) Regional Utilities System. The System had just finished building a new power plant, and now it had to raise rates to pay for it! Working with environmentalists, members of the business community, and others, he won consensus for a rate structure that discouraged wasteful consumption and which experimented with time-of-day rates--a rather severe break with the utility's traditional growth-oriented policies. He left town two days after the City Commission accepted the new rate structure--thus avoiding the "heat" that was sure to come--to take a faculty position at Virginia Tech.

Though previously writing about astronomy performed from outer space, Richard had been bitten by the electricity bug and chose to pursue new research on the recent history of the utility system. In 1989, he published Technology and Transformation in the American Electric Utility Industry (Cambridge University Press), a book that describes the technological, managerial, and cultural reasons for the industry's problems of the 1970s.  He has also worked as a consultant for the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, co-authoring a management history on the utility's "ACT-squared" energy-efficiency R&D project.  In late-1999, he published his latest book, Power Loss:  The Origins of Deregulation and Restructuring in the American Electric Utility System, with MIT Press.  The book describes events leading to the current restructuring of the power system.  Trying to get his message across to many audiences, Richard has written articles in The Harvard Business Review, The Electricity Journal, Technology and Culture, and other magazines.  He also contributed the bulk of the narrative content for a web site, produced by the Smithsonian Institution, which describes the process of restructuring in the utility system.

Most recently (in 2001), Richard helped create and became director of the Consortium on Energy Restructuring, an interdisciplinary research group at Virginia Tech that provides a forum for synergistic research on the social, political, economic, and technical aspects of changing energy systems.  Currently, under a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), members of the group have begun collaboration and education dealing with the design and management of distributed generation technologies, small-scale, decentralized, modular hardware that provides electricity in harmony with the existing utility infrastructure.  The consortium expects to produce a more secure and efficient electric utility system within the restructured political and regulatory framework. 

Career Highlights

  • Ph.D in history of science, 1979 and M.S. in physics, 1980, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
  • Professor of history of technology and science & technology studies at Virginia Tech since 1980.
  • Visiting research fellow at the Harvard Business School, 1983-85.
  • Worked with colleagues at the University of Florida on an NSF-sponsored project to incorporated history of science into high school science curricula.
  • Author of three books, two on the recent history of the electric utility industry.
  • Since 2001, director of the interdisciplinary Consortium on Energy Restructuring at Virginia Tech.
  • Frequent speaker to a variety of audiences on the historical background and possible future of the electric utility industry.

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