Guiding the energy transformation

UNSW Petroleum Engineering alumni Philip Hirschhorn is helping the Australian energy sector navigate its way into a brave new world.

UNSW Petroleum Engineering alumni, Philip Hirschhorn, is helping the Australian energy sector navigate its way into a brave new world.After graduating from his degree in Petroleum Engineering with Class 1 Honours and the University Medal, Philip Hirschhorn was snapped-up by one of the international powerhouses of management consulting – The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

Today, 17 years later, Hirschhorn leads BCG's Energy practice in Australia and New Zealand. Since bringing it back to Australia seven years ago, has dedicated his time to helping leading companies and government agencies, along the whole energy value chain in Australia, navigate their way through the huge upheaval the sector is going through. We caught up with him to find out more.

What are you working on at the moment?

Much of the work we are doing at the moment is in the electricity sector. There is considerable change going on at the moment and a lot of my time is spent with the network businesses (the ones that run the poles and wires), helping them to make their businesses more efficient. I’m also helping them to think about and strategically plan their role in the new world of electricity.

What does this new world of electricity look like, do you think?

That’s a very good question and a lot of people are trying to work it out right now! I think it’s going to look like neither the old world of big, central generation, nor does it look like people being completely independent and producing and using their own electricity.

I think it will be something in the middle where people produce some electricity at home, store some of it themselves and send some across the network to other users; at the same time, I think there will definitely be the need for central generators to continue contributing to the mix as well.

Why did you choose to study Petroleum Engineering at UNSW?

Good question! Why petroleum engineering? Engineering was almost always a kind of given for me as I was a mathematicky-sciency sort of guy. As for petroleum engineering, I was, even then, absolutely fascinated by the energy sector, the role it plays in international economics and politics, and just our general day-to-day life.

Why UNSW? Two reasons: it had the best reputation for engineering and it was the only place that offered Petroleum Engineering at that time!

Engineering was almost always a kind of given for me as I was a mathematicky-sciency sort of guy.

Philip Hirschhorn

What’s your fondest memory of your time on campus?

One thing the UNSW Petroleum Engineering student body has is a very strong society called the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE). SPE is part of a big global body of petroleum engineers, consisting of both students and working petroleum engineers. It created some very interesting opportunities for us there at the School.

Also, at the time I was there, there was a very small, tight-knit class (only about 15 of us compared to the hundreds of undergraduates today) and there was one person that everyone from Petroleum Engineering will tell you about, a guy called Henry Salisch. He passed away a few years ago now, but worked well into his 80s and he just cared very heavily about the students, so that’s another big memory.

What innovations are happening in the energy sector on the near horizon that you’re most excited about?

Oh, wow, so many. One is the advances in distributed generation technology, such as solar panels on houses. Then there’s a series of things to do with digitisation, such as electricity retailers’ online services becoming more seamless, easier to use and lower-cost.

Then there are smart meters and lots of potential opportunities generated by the advent of big data. In the US, for example, there’s a group that make thermostats which interface with your electricity system and get to know when you get home and how you like your house heated or cooled. Then there are lots of ideas around the peer-to-peer trading of electricity, using blockchain as a way of being able to facilitate that trading market.

What career advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?

Looking back, one thing that I probably should have done more of is to continually refresh my skills and knowledge, and be more aware of what’s happening outside of my line of work. Things I’m trying to catch up on now, that I haven’t done over the last decade, are understanding things like programming, app development and websites.

So I think, for me, I think the biggest piece of advice I would give myself would be: keep investing in yourself as your asset.

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