Institute for Advanced Study Presents

Energy consumption and economic growth

Thursdays at Four
Feb 2016
About the Event

A blend of history, engineering, and policy, this talk examines the relationship between energy consumption and economic growth in the United States. In a way that appeared to make eminent sense, increased energy consumption propelled economic activity for more than a century. But when the country faced an energy crisis in the 1970s, government, business, and academic policy analysts began questioning unspoken assumptions behind that relationship. As important, they wondered whether efforts to conserve energy or use energy more efficiently would stall the nation’s economic engine, resulting in declining social welfare.

The talk will explore the origin of the relationship between energy consumption and economic growth and why it has held so much meaning in the technical, policy, and cultural realms. It will also examine the causes of recent changes in the relationship and some consequences of those changes. Paying special attention to the connections between economic growth and electrical energy consumption, the presentation (and subsequent discussion) will interrogate the role of new methods to generate and use electricity that have contributed to economic growth without greatly increasing the amount of energy consumption.

Richard Hirsh is a professor of History of Technology and Science & Technology Studies at Virginia Tech. His academic background is unusual, since he holds a Master’s degree in Physics and a Ph.D. in History of Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Though previously writing about astronomy performed from outer space (published as Glimpsing an Invisible Universe in 1983), Richard turned his attention to the recent history of electric utilities. In 1989, he published Technology and Transformation in the American Electric Utility Industry, 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 1999, he published Power Loss: The Origins of Deregulation and Restructuring in the American Electric Utility System. He continues to publish and speak on policy-related issues dealing with electric power systems, working with engineers, scientists, and policy analysts at Virginia Tech and other universities. In an unusual twist for someone who focuses largely on contemporary policy-oriented concerns, Richard is writing a book on the largely neglected—but relatively successful—efforts to power up farms in the years before the federal government created the Rural Electrification Administration (in 1935). Richard can be contacted by email at

This event is cosponsored by the Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. To request a disability-related accommodation, please contact the IAS ( 612-626-5054) at least two weeks prior to the event.