Since taking the job as UC San Diego’s first director of strategic energy initiatives in September 2008, Byron Washom has worked to turn the 1,200-acre campus into a model of sustainability, a “living laboratory” he calls it.
This includes renewable energy, greenhouse-gas reduction, energy management, energy storage systems and greening the campus transportation fleet. The university impressively generates 80% of its own electricity.
“The only thing we’re looking at, at the campus, are quantum improvements…It’s not just to install the next incremental step; it’s to put in the next breakthrough. What I’m doing with my colleagues is going to have a global impact…I’m so anxious to put the different pieces of the puzzle together…Learning patience is the only negative part of the job.”
Though born in Maryland, Washom was raised in Hawaii and on the isolated Midway Atoll. His father, a retired naval officer, went into the electric-supply business distributing utility products and his mother worked as an account executive for a newspaper agency.
Living in the middle of the Pacific on a bird and marine sanctuary roughly the size of UC San Diego was for him a firsthand education in sustainability. The 400 residents of the atoll relied on a monthly supply ship, diesel generators and a desalination plant. With only two passenger cars, most people rode on bikes. “Using renewable systems was a way of life…You lived within your means. It was a radically different world.”
Washom, now 60, graduated from Honolulu’s Punahou School in 1967, more than a decade before Barack Obama graduated from the same school. He left for USC just as Hawaii was opening its first freeway. He earned a bachelor’s degree in management and finance (with a minor in oceanography) in 1971, and then an MBA the next year. In 1976, he completed his postgraduate studies in ocean engineering at MIT.
After working on solar energy for Fairchild Stratos Corp., Washom founded Advanco Corp. in 1980. Four years later, Advanco set the world record for the most efficient rate of converting solar energy to electricity, using a technology that NASA later considered using to power the International Space Station.
In 1989, Washom founded the energy and environmental technology consultant firm Spencer Management Associates and served as president for 20 years.
He has also advised the World Bank, the Energy Department and the International Finance Corp.
An avid surfer since childhood, Washom credits this sport for his risk-taking business style:
“That’s when my greatest genius comes out, at the end of the branch of a tree…It’s a culture to me. The element of risk was also combined with the grace and athleticism of surfing a wave, so you were scared and performing at the same time.”