Globe-trotting entrepreneur finds home heading strategic energy efforts at UCSD
Ioana Patringenaru | Oct. 11, 2010
In his late 20s and early 30s, Byron Washom helped develop one of the two technologies vying to power the International Space Station. Later, he set up renewable energy projects in developing countries around the globe, helping raise a quarter billion dollars in funding over 14 years. For the last nine years, he combined his roles as a social entrepreneur and consultant with that of a single parent to two children. In 2008, Washom embarked on what he describes as “the ultimate encore career” as the director of strategic energy initiatives at UC San Diego.
Washom first got to know the campus when his son, Spencer, became a freshman here in September 2006. He decided to give the university some of his time as a parent rather than write a check. When he first got to UCSD, he felt like Christopher Columbus, he said. He had found the most phenomenal investment in sustainability and renewable energy than he had come across in any of his travels.
UCSD is a model worldwide for sustainability, he said. Sierra Magazine, the Sierra Club’s media outlet, agrees and has named UCSD among the nation’s top 20 “coolest” schools for its efforts to stop global warming and operate sustainably.
Washom said he was impressed by the commitment Chancellor Marye Anne Fox and the university’s vice chancellors made to sustainability and by the campus’ infrastructure. Campus leaders were equally impressed by him.
Byron Washom on Midway as a child.
“Byron Washom has been instrumental in helping UC San Diego become one of the greenest universities in the nation,” Fox said. “His entrepreneurial spirit, leadership, vision and passion for sustainability are unparalleled.”
Washom started coming to UCSD about once a month. Two years into his stint as a pro-bono parent, he found he was spending one-third of his time volunteering for the campus. He now had to make a choice: commit to the university or go back to his consulting practice.
Washom still hadn’t made up his mind when he was invited to a UCSD alumni fundraiser in San Francisco. That evening, he watched Fox deliver a stump speech about the importance of renewable energy. It was the speech Washom usually gave—but Fox delivered it better. Washom was touched by Fox’s passion and intellectual understanding of the issues, he said. “You can’t give that speech without passion from the heart,” he said. He decided to dedicate himself to UCSD full time.
Renewable energy projects
The campus is years ahead in the field of sustainability, Washom said. For example, in June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave UC San Diego a 2010 Energy Star CHP Award for its high efficiency, low-emission power plant that provides 85 percent of the campus’ annual electricity needs. That plant has been in operation for nine years, Washom pointed out. “What’s best in class today is nine-year-old hat to us,” he said.
An aerial view and a landscape image of Midway.
Since he started working full time at UCSD in 2008, Washom has been engaged in a plethora of projects. He compares himself to Johnny Appleseed: he likes to plant the seed for his projects, but prefers to leave the harvesting to others. “It’s a prism of different opportunities,” he said. “What you can build here is only limited by your imagination.” Projects he is involved with include:
- $15 million of low-interest bonds to triple the university’s existing photovoltaic systems
- The campus’ fuel cell, which is powered by flared methane from a Point Loma plant
- A model designed to accurately forecast the output on cloudy days of each section of solar photovoltaic panels scattered across a city, state or region.
One of Washom's goals is to set aside some of the renewable energy produced here to power a fleet of electric vehicles. “It’s really the end game,” he said. “It’s the lowest emissions value you can dream of.” The project would become a global showcase and is possible because UCSD already has the infrastructure needed.
A passion for sustainability
Sustainability has been a passion of Washom’s ever since he was a little boy. At age 8, his family moved to Midway Island, an atoll in the North Pacificwhere his father served as the island’s supply officer. The island had no natural resources. Drinking water was rationed to one gallon a day. Diesel generators provided electricity and desalinated water. A supply ship visited once a month. If the item you wanted wasn’t on the ship, you had to wait.
Though he was on Midway for just 1 ½ years, Washom said he can trace many of his traits to his time on the island. That’s where he learned to be competitive, he said. Children on Midway collected glass balls from Japanese fishing nets. Washom learned that to get as many as possible, he had to be the first on the beach in the morning. He was so good at it that other families asked his parents to keep him in bed longer so their children could get some of the loot too.
This June marked the 52nd anniversary of Washom’s departure from Midway. His goal is to visit the island again next year as part of a small group of civilian visitors allowed there every year. Competition for the spots is stiff. To boost his chances, Washom is capturing his impressions, and those of other former Midway residents, on video. If he makes the cut, he plans to record himself on the island as well.
He also wants to leave a time capsule on Midway for his two children, now ages 22 and 17. It would include one of those Japanese glass balls along with his wedding ring and other prized possessions. He even plans to make a treasure map to help his son and daughter find the capsule. “If they want to find crazy dad’s prized possessions, they’ll have to go on Midway,” he said.
That shouldn’t be a problem for Washom’s children, who already have a keen sense of adventure. They have traveled the world with their father as he worked in developing countries, including Brazil, Indonesia, China and Mexico. This summer, Washom’s daughter, Colby, best known by her nickname “Sunee,” visited Uganda, with the non-profit organization Invisible Children.
Washom's daughter, Colby "Sunee" during a trip
with a nonprofit organization in Uganda.
Sunee was part of a group of students who lobbied Congress in the summer of 2009 for the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which requires the Obama administration to develop a strategy to end the conflict in Uganda. President Barack Obama signed the bill into law in May of this year. Invisible Children recognized her fund raising efforts for rebuilding war-torn schools by providing a two-week visit to meet the students of northern Uganda whose lives have been changed for the better.She came back just weeks before a terror blast killed 71 people in Uganda, including Invisible Children staff member Nate Henn.
Washom’s son, Spencer, spent a semester abroad in Fiji while at UCSD. He speaks five languages and has recently been accepted at the U.S. Navy’s Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I, where he will train to become a Naval flight officer. Father and son recently visited the U.S.S. Midway, an aircraft carrier turned museum in San Diego, much like the ships Spencer will be assigned to later. They made sure the future pilot’s 6’4” frame fit in the ship’s bed bunks. Spencer was Washom’s original inspiration to start a consulting firm. When he held his son for the first time, he knew he wanted to make his son proud, he said.
By then, Washom’s track record already was impressive. He had studied business and oceanography at the University of Southern California, where he earned a bachelor’s and an M.B.A. His postgraduate studies took him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the time, he hadn’t taken calculus since high school. “I always joke that I got a Ph.D. in humility from MIT,” Washom said.
At age 27, he was hired as manager for technology and policy at Fairchild Industries, where his boss’ boss was famed rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun. In 1980, Washom convinced his bosses at Fairchild to let him spin off the company’s advanced projects division into a separate company. Washom and his crew went on to set eight technical records for the conversion of sunlight into energy. One of them remained unbroken for 24 years. Washom sold the company in 1985, the same day he got married. Shortly afterwards, the company received a contract from NASA to design the systems that would power the space station. “Never did I envision the space application when I started the company,” Washom said.
Washom with his son, Spencer, during his UCSD
graduation in 2009.
After the company sold, Washom said he glided on a golden parachute for four years—until Spencer was born. After the birth of his son, he founded Spencer Management Associates and divided his time between consulting and his role as a social entrepreneur. He received four grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and Heinz Endowments, helping establish funding for a quarter billion dollars over 14 years for renewable energy projects in developing countries. He jetted around the globe with Spencer and Sunee.
In 1997, he managed to get himself named an observer of the handover of Hong Kong to China. Sunee was a 4 ½-year-old shy little girl. When the family visited China, she became the darling of local residents, who wanted to snap pictures with her. She was mobbed by adoring fans. She bloomed, Washom said.
But in 2001, Washom became a single parent. His two children are his priority, he said. He convinced his clients to work with him by e-mail and phone. He stopped traveling out of the country. His nicknames included the “Ninja consultant,” “Howard Hughes,” after the reclusive millionaire, and “Casper,” after the friendly ghost. He really only came out of hiding recently and only to promote UCSD’s sustainability efforts, he said.
“It isn’t my effort,” he said. “It’s this campus and the people here.”