Byron Washom, UC San Diego's first director of strategic energy initiatives, is a risk-taker and an explorer, and his appetite for adventure dates back to his childhood when he lived on the Midway Atoll, a tiny island — the size of UC San Diego — in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. His can-do attitude, and the fact that the word “boundary” doesn’t exist in his vocabulary, are a big part of his success: at age 27, he became the manager of technology and policy at a Fairchild Industries’ advanced projects department. He and his team went on to set eight technical world records for the conversion of sunlight to electricity. And Washom won the R&D 100 Award for the 100 most outstanding innovations in the world in 1984. Now he’s channeling his energy into UC San Diego’s sustainability initiatives.
1. How did you get involved in sustainability initiatives?
The personal involvement came at the impressionable age of eight when I moved to the Midway Atoll. My father was the Navy’s supply officer for the island with a population of 400, and we were there about a year and a half. The island had no natural resources so we were taught conservation. We kept lights off unless we needed them. Our potable fresh water was rationed — a gallon a day for drinking. Our electricity and desalinated seawater supply were reliant upon temperamental diesel generators. There were only two cars on the island and everyone else rode bicycles. And we had a monthly supply ship that came to the island. If the item you requested wasn’t on the ship, you had to wait. I vividly remember when we first got to the island, one of the adults told my parents, “you don’t learn to live without, you learn to live within.” We learned to be creative and stretch our resources.
The island was also a marine and bird sanctuary. The island’s culture was to steward the environment first; humans were the minority guests on the island. Very few young people are exposed to 2 million birds from 19 species nesting all around you. The first time I went swimming in the lagoon with my goggles, I surfaced and foolishly yelled “Mom, Dad, someone spilled all of the aquarium’s fish into the lagoon!” Usually kids have only seen fish like that in an aquarium, whereas I now had school recess on a tropical beach with 250 species of fish in the lagoon. So I constantly think about those emblazoned experiences from my youth and how they’ve oriented my thinking. To most people it would be highly unusual, but to my belief system, it was simply the natural order of life.
I also had daily adventures on that island. It was only 2-by-3 miles, but 75 percent was restricted. So we were actually confined to living on only one quadrant of the island. Defiantly I explored the entire island. That was an exciting prospect for an 8-year-old boy. I beach-combed for undetonated rifle bullets from World War II, learned how to disarm them, and turned the bullet heads into a tribal-like necklace.
2. What led you to start your own solar energy business?
Washom: Professionally, I got involved in sustainability as a result of the initial oil embargos. I had been in the oceanography field, but the embargos were such an affront to this country and the developed world that I wanted to help wean ourselves from this dependency.
When I worked at Fairchild Industries, renewable energy was a major part of their program. One of the projects we worked on was very exciting and challenging, and many thought it couldn’t be done, which only whetted my appetite. In 1980, with the company’s permission, I took the technology and tried to give it a go as an entrepreneur. Four years later, we set eight technical world records for the conversion of sunlight to grid electricity. The most significant of those records stood for 24 years. At the time, solar energy stretched the boundaries of materials, physics and operations.
||3. How did you first get involved with UC San Diego and why did you want to become the university’s first Director of Strategic Energy Initiatives?
Washom: I got involved with UC San Diego because my son, Spencer, was a student here. I offered my time and talent, and was a pro-bono parent for two years, donating about 30 percent of my time to the university. During this long engagement period, I met all of the fabulous people working on sustainability and I saw that the leadership was 100 percent behind the initiatives. I watched four Vice Chancellors, and the Chancellor herself, give speeches about sustainability, and I know you can’t give those speeches without passion and a public commitment to what you’re saying. So I saw the strength of the staff, students and faculty, and the opportunities and legacy infrastructure. UC San Diego was so forward-thinking that the campus was already 10 years ahead of most others in its sustainability initiatives. In the summer of 2008, I had to decide whether to continue my global consulting practice or join the UC San Diego team, and I wanted to be here for the ultimate “encore career.”
||4. What are some of the projects you’re currently working on?
Washom: Energy storage is a main focus. Energy storage has been the orphan of the equation. We’ve looked at supply and demand, and keeping them in balance. But if you add electricity energy storage into the equation, it changes the dynamics of your supply and demand.
As a co-principal investigator with Professor Jan Kleissl in engineering, we’re setting up optimization software that will, on an hourly basis, analyze what renewable energy is available and what can be stored. Jan is also working with the 16 microclimate weather stations on campus which measure sunlight, humidity and a variety of other things. He also has two devices called a ceilometer and skytracker, which is like a fish-eye in the sky that has a 360 degree view of the horizon. It can spot a cloud coming in and create a 3-D characterization of that cloud. With time, Jan will obtain a database that will enable him to forecast solar energy one to three hours in advance, so we know when it’s time to charge and discharge our storage systems.
We are currently negotiating for an energy storage system that will allow UC San Diego to become the university with the world’s largest electricity energy storage system, thanks to incentives from non-university sources. We also want to issue another bid using incentives to increase our photovoltaic energy on campus due to the dramatic drop in prices.
||5. Since you joined the UC San Diego team, what accomplishment are you most proud of and what has been the most challenging part of the job?
Washom: I’m most thankful for the matrix of individuals I work with and the collaboration that enables us to get so much done. The accomplishment I’m most proud of is helping to win an allotment for $154 million in clean renewable energy bonds for the region and $15 million for UC San Diego. But it was really four engineering students that made this happen — Karl Olney, Michael Gollner, Kevin Peng and Ihab Khayal. I went to Jan Kleissl’s class and made a pitch for volunteers. Four stepped up, I met with them once, and they took the ball and ran. They provided the pivotal solar resource and technical assessment to CleanTech San Diego in the preparation of the proposals from the San Diego region and, voila, this region won $1 out of every $5 of clean renewable energy bonds in the nation. That’s phenomenal.
The only frustrating part of the job is patience. I’m used to closing deals at warp speed and having the team with the best score win. For instance, we submitted $77 million worth of requests for federal stimulus dollars. So far we’ve received at least $18 million, but I wanted to win it all. But that’s not the way it works. The request for proposals actually have qualifying statements that say “other significant program factors will be taken into account,” which really means they’re going to spread the wealth. I naturally think UC San Diego is so outstanding that we deserve it all.
But I have learned that persistence and conviction pay off. When we competed for the Department of Energy contract that enabled us to set the world record in 1984, it was against all odds as a small startup. The government said they had $1.5 million and they planned to make two awards. I bid $2.8 million, explaining that was the true cost if they wanted success. It was twice as much as they had budgeted and four times as much as they wanted to give one contractor. DOE came to share the vision, made one award for $2.8 million, and the results speak for themselves.
||6. How does being a single parent of two, including a UC San Diego alumnus, motivate you in your job? What else motivates you?
Washom: When they were about my age when I was on Midway, we traveled the world together while on mission with the Rockefeller Foundation, and I had a quiet hope that they would gain a global perspective on life rather than an isolated island or a suburban bubble. Spencer just graduated in 10 quarters in his chosen major of International Relations/Political Science, he selected Fiji during the ethnically based military coup for his study abroad, and and he coupled all of these experiences plus his skills in five languages to serve as translator at a refugee immigration service while in college. His sister, Sunee, is a compassionate, strong-willed high school junior that decided to start a club called Generation for Change, which has raised more than $10,000 in three months to help Ugandans rebuild schools devastated by civil war; she’s traveling there this summer. She also wants to lobby Congress this summer on the Senate bill that’s to bring the Ugandan civil warlord to justice. (Congress, considered yourself forewarned!) Already they have more character, heart, talent and spirit than I ever dreamed of nurturing.
They’re also my motivation to work harder here at UC San Diego so I can avoid being labeled the laggard in the family.
Favorite part of your job: The inability to exceed the imagination of my UC San Diego colleagues.
Favorite place at UC San Diego:Snackropolis for breakfast at Scripps Pier
Favorite place on Earth: The labyrinth underground Metro of Paris
Favorite way to be sustainable: Riding the off-campus shuttle buses packed full of students
Favorite hobby:Surfing, especially with my children
Favorite food:Anything with mangoes on it
Favorite words to live by:“That which goes deepest to the heart, goes widest to the world.” Dr. Rev. Bryant Kirkland, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York City, 1981.
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