Whatcom Magazine

Joel Swisher working to expand degree offerings at Institute for Energy Studies at WWU

Joel Swisher, the new director of the Institute for Energy Studies at Western Washington University, stumbled across the institute by chance after his son enrolled at Western.

At the time, Swisher, 57, was living in Boulder, Colo., where he was an independent consultant and taught graduate-level courses at Stanford University on greenhouse gas mitigation and electric utility planning methods.

The Institute for Energy Studies piqued his interest by virtue of what it offers undergraduate students — an interdisciplinary platform with depth and breadth about the science, policy and technology of energy.

Since assuming his new job in November 2014, Swisher is helping to create a new bachelor of arts degree in energy policy and management for the 2015-16 school year, and a bachelor of science degree in energy science and technology for later.

Swisher recalls hiring new graduates with general degrees while he was managing director of research and consulting at Rocky Mountain Institute.

“Like many other employers, my question to them related to their skill set; what could they offer me today?”

“At the institute we’re trying to give students more of an advantage at the initial stage of their careers,” Swisher says. “With the kind of background we’re offering them, our students will be attractive to nonprofits and private firms in the energy field and environmental space; for example, using technology to make energy use more efficient in buildings, factories and vehicles — a very important resource for improving the economy while conserving the environment.”

Swisher has a doctorate in energy and environmental engineering from Stanford. A registered professional engineer, he is currently researching the integration of plug-in vehicles with renewable energy in the power grid.

This is Swisher’s first time living in the Northwest and he’s excited about the prospect of hiking and orienteering.

“I love outdoor stuff and am really enjoying the nice, crisp weather since I arrived,” he says.

As a researcher at the forefront of renewable energy, he’s thrilled by the opportunity to build new programs at the institute, programs he says fit a real need for students.

“Western Washington has a strong reputation in environmental sciences and a good understanding of the challenge and opportunity of interdisciplinary studies,” Swisher says. “This is a great opportunity to start at the beginning and build something new, creative and very beneficial for students and graduates.”

The name of the WWU institute was corrected in the headline on Feb. 17, 2015.