Elizabeth Rusch on “Catching a Wave”

Elizabeth Rusch
Elizabeth Rusch is the author of "Catching a Wave." Courtesy of Elizabeth Rusch

Elizabeth Rusch got her start in journalism as a writer and editor for Teacher magazine, a national magazine on education reform in Washington, D.C., where she reported on educational issues and innovations around the country. Now based in Portland, Oregon, she freelances for Smithsonian, Backpacker, Parenting and Portland Monthly and writes children’s books.

What drew you to this story about wave energy?

The ocean itself drew me. As a child, I bodysurfed in the Atlantic. I’d stand in the break zone feeling currents pull at my legs as a crest rose up. I’d dive forward with the wall of the wave at my back, tuck my head and feel the wave hurtle me forward, water roiling at my finger tips. Sometimes I’d be pummeled by breakers, just slammed into the sand. I’d find my feet, sputtering and marveling at the strength of the breakers. I think a sense of the power of waves was pummeled into my very pores.

How did you hear about Annette von Jouanne?

I read about Annette’s earliest prototypes in my local paper, The Oregonian. Turns out I had been clipping short articles about her work and about wave energy for quite a while because one day, while cleaning out the wire inbox on my desk, I found all these newspapers clippings. I read through them and thought: There is a great story here, a story that has not yet been told, about this inventor, this pioneer, about the incredible potential of this untapped renewable energy source.

What do you find most interesting about her?

Annette really defies the stereotype of a geeky engineer. She has a brilliant, creative, scientific, inventive mind, but she’s also strong and athletic and has real charisma. She has managed to rally people with such diverse backgrounds and interests around wave energy: fisherman, crabbers, state and national government officials, business leaders and environmentalists. She’ll talk about wave energy with a state legislator in the morning, the CEO of an energy company at lunch and a group of fisherman at an evening meeting. She gracefully listens, empathizes and addresses their concerns. So I was drawn to her because she’s a brilliant scientist, but it turns out she’s brilliant with people, too.

How did you spend your time with her while you were reporting the story?

Annette couldn’t wait to show me her energy lab, WESRF. She was like a kid in a candy shop. Her enthusiasm was so contagious, I found myself wondering how I could get my hands on an independent utility power supply, an arbitrary waveform generator, a motor/generator test bed. But wait, I had no need to test a Ford Hybrid engine…

What was your favorite moment during reporting?

Well, at one point I asked Annette for an example of a failure or stumbling block she had to overcome. She laughed and said: Well, yesterday.

Yesterday? I asked.

Yes, she said: “We had this reporter coming (me!) and the current prototype was two inches too tall to fit in the test bed, and we really wanted to show the buoy in the test bed. It was like, okay, what do we do now? We had to innovate. We disassembled the test bed and reassembled it and made it work. We looked at all the options and moved forward. And that’s what we always do. We always run into challenges everyday with designing and building buoys. Everyday there’s a contingency and everyday there’s an opportunity to be innovative to overcome that challenge. So stumbling blocks not only happen, they happen everyday.”

I loved how in a small way I was part of the process of innovation.

What surprised you the most about the technology behind wave energy?

The wide array of designs that Annette has tried. Even when she settled on direct drive technology, the prototypes looked so different. One huge yellow buoy in her lab was big enough to protect my family in a nuclear war. Then a later one had a totally different shape: flat and wide like a flying saucer.

We are so used to seeing designs that have become standard, like the standard three-prong design for a windmill. With a new, emerging technology it’s really cool to see all the crazy options that are tested first.

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