An environmental pioneer surfs a long green wave


The gig: 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.”

Projects include renewable energy, energy management, greenhouse-gas reduction, energy storage systems and greening the campus transportation fleet. The university generates 80% of its own electricity.

“The only thing we’re looking at, at the campus, are quantum improvements,” he said. “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.”


Washom donated two years of his time as an advisor for the school before UCSD created the director position for him, he said. “I’m so anxious to put the different pieces of the puzzle together,” he said. “Learning patience is the only negative part of the job.”

Sustainable start: Though he was born in Maryland, Washom was raised in Hawaii and on the isolated Midway Atoll. His father was a retired naval officer who went into the electric-supply business distributing utility products; 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 a firsthand education in sustainability, he said -- “a Shangri-La.” 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 bikes, he said. “Using renewable systems was a way of life,” he said. “You lived within your means. It was a radically different world.”

Education: Washom, 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 opened 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 postgraduate studies in ocean engineering at MIT.

Lots of energy: 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 to power the International Space Station.

That record, 29.4%, stood for 24 years, until government-owned Sandia National Laboratories bested it. In 1989, Washom founded 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., roles that have taken him around the world. In 1997, in one of the “greatest thrills” of his life, he served as an observer at the hand-over of Hong Kong to the Chinese government.

Catching a wave: An avid surfer since childhood, Washom credits the sport for his risk-taking business style.

“That’s when my greatest genius comes out, at the end of the branch of a tree,” he said. “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.”

Choose your circle -- wisely: The people who surround you can determine your success or failure, Washom said. Students should befriend and compete with people who are much more academically gifted in order to challenge themselves, he said; finding like-minded people in business is even more important. A bad fit can cause distraction.

“Surround yourself with people who share with you your vision and ambition,” he said. “Go to like-minded people and companies. That’s difficult in this slow job market, but all your energies should be on solving solutions rather than debating with your colleagues, investors or clients.”

Funny guy: If this saving-the-planet thing doesn’t work out, Washom said he wouldn’t mind serving as the creative director of MTV’s hidden-camera show “Punk’d.” A longtime prankster, Washom said his elaborate ruses are “epic.”


He once duped a friend who had just won the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance -- the “Kentucky Derby of classic car shows” -- by sending him a congratulatory e-mail posing as designer and car enthusiast Ralph Lauren. The friend promptly called Lauren to thank him. A good prank “just starts my creative juices flowing,” Washom said. “It takes months to set the foundation.”

Personal: When not in San Diego (to which he commutes), Washom lives in the Bay Area suburb of Danville with his 17-year-old daughter. He also has a son, 22.