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New faculty administrative fellow in research office to focus on energy


BLACKSBURG, Va., July 10, 2006 – Richard Hirsh, of Blacksburg, Va., professor of history and science and technology studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and director of the Consortium on Energy Restructuring at Virginia Tech, has been named as a faculty administrative fellow in the Office of the Vice President for Research.

Assignments for the quarter-time (25 percent) position involve strategy development for research initiatives and development of policies and practices for university research activities relating to energy matters.

"A university begins with its faculty. Yet, on a day-to-day basis, faculty members rarely have the time or are given the opportunity to be directly involved in discussions about strategies and resources at the institutional level," said Brad Fenwick, vice president for research. "This position allows faculty involvement in the important background discussions that occur in the early stages of decision-making.

"I am pleased that Richard Hirsh – with his record of leadership and achievement in energy policy – is willing to take on this added responsibility at this time, when energy and environmental research is an important focus of the university's strategic plan," Fenwick said.

Hirsh said, "The university contains a huge number of people in different departments and research organizations doing exciting energy research. I want to help these people get together and pursue synergistic research."

Hirsh bases his hopes on his own experiences. In 2001, he learned of people in three colleges doing work on electricity deregulation and restructuring – the same topic he studies. They formed the Consortium on Energy Restructuring and received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to pursue research on distributed generation technologies. "I'd like to help other faculty members see the value in working with colleagues in often vastly different fields," Hirsh said. "Virginia Tech faculty members can play a role in crafting public policy, in Richmond and beyond, dealing with energy and economic development."

Hirsh began his work in electricity by serving as an appointed, unpaid official on an energy advisory committee for the City of Gainesville, Florida, while he was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Florida. He chaired a subcommittee that developed a new way for customers to pay for electricity produced by the city-owned utility – a way that helped reduce demand for power and the need to build a new power plant in the immediate future. "The experience demonstrated that my academic work on energy could be translated into real public policy," said Hirsh.

Hirsh joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 1980 and has been a professor since 1991. He continues to translate scholarship into public policy. Hirsh has published and spoken extensively on the recent history of electric utility deregulation. His books and articles cross disciplinary boundaries and have practical value to social scientists and to policy makers in business and government. Among his publications are Power Loss: The Origins of Deregulation and Restructuring in the American Electric Utility System (MIT Press, 1999) and Technology and Transformation in the American Electric Utility Industry (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

The most recent of his six NSF grants, running from 2003 to 2007, consists of a $470,000 award from the Program in Electric Power Networks Efficiency and Security. The project, “A Holistic Approach to the Design and Management of a Secure and Efficient Distributed Generation Power System,” supports the research of faculty members and students in business, engineering, consumer affairs, and science & technology studies.

Hirsh said he would also like to help the university become an example of excellence in energy management. "I am eager to work with people to make the university more energy efficient and more amenable to employing state-of-the-art technologies for providing new sources of energy. We could design buildings that meet standards set by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a program run by the US Green Building Council). We could also pursue efficiency retrofits of existing buildings and purchase only EnergyStar appliances, among other things.

"Our overall energy initiatives will gain credibility if the university demonstrates the best practices of energy management at home."

Hirsh is beginning his duties as a fellow by working with Jack Lesko, associate professor of engineering science and mechanics, who will continue as a faculty administrative fellow in the Office of the Vice President for Research but at a reduced level so that he has time to manage a new research effort. Together Hirsh and Lesko will provide administrative support for a task force on energy research composed of the college deans, who have appointed representatives, and National Capital Region leaders. Plans include a lecture series and a deans' symposium to share research information. The effort will also lead to publication of a brochure to highlight Virginia Tech’s research in energy fields, as well as other communication activities.

Hirsh's honors include a fellowship from the Harvard Business School to perform research for two years. In 2005, he won the IEEE Life Members’ Prize in Electrical History, recognizing the best paper in electrical history published in 2004. The paper is called “Power Struggle: Changing Momentum in the Restructured American Electric Utility System,” and Hirsh received the award from the Society for the History of Technology.

Hirsh's many papers and invited presentations include, “It’s NOT Just the Economy, Stupid (or Engineering, or Efficiency, etc.): The Strange Origins and Future of Electric Utility System Restructuring,” presented to the NSF Electric Power Research Workshop on Economics, Electric Power and Adaptive Systems in 2002.

Last year, he and his Ph.D. student, Benjamin Sovacool, were commissioned to write a report for the Virginia General Assembly on “Incentives and Impediments to Renewable Energy Systems in Virginia,” It was part of a larger study produced by the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research's Study of Increased Use of Renewable Energy Resources in Virginia.