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Below The Surface

Monday, July 25, 2011

More Than Just a Flip of the Switch

It only took a moment to flip the switch and make it happen, but months and months of planning and working together with a variety of organizations, contractors, educators and utility companies and co-ops finally came together in July and allowed ECHO to begin to feed 27,000 kWh of power into Vermont’s electrical grid.

The solar array that is now on the rooftop at ECHO is one of the many such projects being installed across Vermont. This solar power production, combined with ECHO’s smart building, puts us at the forefront of the emerging Smart Grid. Because eight Vermont electric utilities and co-ops came together and secured a $80 million grant, Vermont will be one of the nation’s first Smart Grid states by 2013.

Since 1960, electricity use has tripled in the United States, but the grid infrastructure has not advanced. The electric grid, which is a network of power plants, transmission lines and utilities, will now become even more complex as all of us potentially become producers (and consumers) of power with that solar panel on your roof, wind turbine out back or battery-operated car that is plugged in. The smart grid will utilize digital technology so that various parts of the grid can communicate. For you, the new Smart Meter on the side of your home will enable you to better manage and understand your electricity usage.

For ECHO, in addition to our commitment to doing our share of reducing our collective energy and ecological footprint, we are interested in helping us all better understand how we can all participate in a healthier environment. Two summer interns recently joined us who are focused exclusively on Smart Grid. Come join Brianna Baker and Kristofer Sellstrom as they create, new, exciting ways for you to explore the coming Smart Grid. How does the electrical grid work? What is a Smart Meter? What happens when the meters can be found across Vermont? These and many other questions are answered every day. Check out their recent blog post.

So it really is more than just a flip of a switch. It is a commitment to continuing to share the innovations and the successes with the public and our peers as we continue down this path of energy sustainability and conservation. We welcome you to come on down to ECHO and poke around…you just might start to see some of these innovations in action.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

ECHO Smart Grid Interns Turn It On!

As the new Smart Grid Outreach Education interns, Kris Sellstrom and I have been working for the past five weeks to develop programs to build awareness about Smart Grid technology across Vermont. So what exactly is the smart grid? The smart grid is 21st century upgrade of the electrical grid. It utilizes digital communications technology to relay information between various parts of the grid. The smart grid communication network will enable better outage management and reduce the potential for large-scale blackouts. ‘Smart meters’ are part of the smart grid communication network and will replace your current electricity meters. These new meters can take power measurements and send them securely to you and your utility company. You can use the information collected by your smart meter to better manage and understand your electric use. Smart grid technology will also allow for better integration of solar, wind and other renewable resources into the electrical grid.

Throughout the internship Kris and I have been working w
ith the eEnergy Vermont Communications Working Group to get feedback and support on our programs. We have also had support from Vermont’s utilities & transmission, renewable energy companies, consulting agencies, educational outreach programs, government agencies, and technology companies. Thus far we have developed a display with informational panels about the smart grid as well as fun and interactive programs about peak power, the history of the electric grid, and smart buildings, which utilizes a building model developed for us by Control Technologies. We are still working on programs focused on environmental impact & renewable energy, consumer impact, and power consumption. Beginning July 26th, we will be running a daily smart grid program at 2:00 pm here at ECHO. Please stop by and discover more about the exciting world of Smart Grid Technology and ways you could put this information to good use for your own daily energy decisions.
- Brianna Baker,
ECHO, Smart Grid Intern, Summer 2011


Brianna with the first prototype of the intern's Lego Loads encounter which aims to spread
awareness about peak power and electricity consumption of household appliances.


Photo by Kristofor Sellstrom, ECHO, Smart Grid Intern, Summer 2011

Friday, July 15, 2011

Governor's Award for Environmental Excellence

On June 30, 2011, more than twenty-three organizations and individuals were recognized for their exceptional contributions to environmental causes at the Governor’s Environmental Awards. ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center’s 2009-2010 Environmental Teen Leadership Program, otherwise known as the E-Team, won the Governor’s award for Youth Environmental Citizenship.

As this year's E-Team Coordinator, I was thrilled to accompany several members of last year's E-Team, including Meiling Chau, Cesar Hammond, Thomas Elston, Sheperd Lantz, and Joyce Pan, and our Director of Education, Molly Loomis, to the ceremony. Taylor Sanders, Mohamed Mohamed, Em Geiselman, Thejas Wesley and 2010 E-Team Coordinator Amanda Gurgul, though not in attendance for the Governor’s Environmental Awards, were also honored by this recognition. Several hundred people were in attendance at the ceremony hosted by Vermont Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, Deb Markowitz and Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, Justin Johnson.

We were so proud to be honored for the hard work that these 9th and 10th graders do during their year-long commitment to ECHO. The E-team is a competitive program with only a select few students chosen to participate each year. While working at ECHO 6 hours every week, they learn about the animals here, the Basin, the mission of the organization, and how to educate and delight ECHO visitors on the floor. Many of our E-team alums are inspired to pursue science and conservation as a career, but all of them will be the future stewards of the environment and our Basin. We couldn’t be more proud of their accomplishments!

ECHO will begin interviewing new applicants for the program in September. For more information on joining our E-team visit ECHO’s website. Check out more photos of E-Team members accepting their award on ECHO's Facebook page.


Pictured, L to R: Molly Loomis, Meiling Chau, Cesar Hammond, Thomas Elston, Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources Deb Markowitz, Sheperd Lantz, Joyce Pan, Kirsten Brewer, and Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation Justin Johnson; ©2011, Gerianne Smart, ECHO’s Director of Marketing and Communications

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Welcome Summer Interns!

Each summer, ECHO welcomes a talented group of interns onto the Education team. This summer, we added eight students from the University of Vermont to train as public educators on ECHO's exhibit floor. They participated in a weeklong training session in June and are currently practicing content development, program delivery, and floor management. Sophie Case, Nancy Jones, Stephan Kostolitz, and Marta McBean are helping us deliver daily experiences to ECHO's guests. Brianna Baker and Kristofor Sellstrom are focusing on developing programs to build awareness about Smart Grid technology across Vermont. Erika Torrez and Emma Hamilton, teen interns from Champlain Valley Union High school and Burlington High School, also joined the team as assistant educators on the floor. Collectively, they bring new energy and expertise to ECHO's summer schedule. After a summer with ECHO, we know our summer interns will add powerful environmental communication skills to the future workforce! Learn more about our teen program here.

Pictured: First row: Nancy Jones, Sophie Case & Stephan Kostolitz, Education intern
Second row: Kristofor Sellstrom & Brianna Baker, Smart Grid Interns, Molly Loomis, Linda Bowden, Elizabeth Nuckols, Education Staff, Marta McBean, Education Intern
Third row: Silver Evans, Technology Intern
© 2011, Gerianne Smart, ECHO’s Director of Marketing and Communications

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Dance of the Pumpkinseed Sunfish

Most, if not all, North American freshwater fish species reproduce only once a year. Some, such as lake trout and brook trout, spawn in the autumn. Most others spawn in spring and summer. But how do they know when conditions are right? How do they all coordinate to ensure spawning successfully produces baby fish each year?

Without a calendar to consult, fish have to rely on their senses to tell them when environmental conditions are right for spawning. For many temperate lake species, like sunfishes, the most reliable cue to predict when to spawn is water temperature. Water temperatures in lakes follow a predictable pattern each year: warming in late spring and summer as day lengths get longer and cooling by late summer and fall as day lengths shorten. Over millennia, the pumpkinseed sunfish have settled on about 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit as their trigger for the initiation of spawning.

But what if water temperatures are constant, say the 68 degrees that our pumpkinseed sunfish experience in our Upper River tank in the Land of Opportunity at ECHO? Do they spawn constantly, or not at all?

As it happens, pumpkinseed sunfish also are sensing the length of each day. Day lengths are even more predictable than water temperature and not dependent upon weather patterns which can change rapidly within the Basin. A pumpkinseed sunfish's hormone levels are primed by longer days so that it is ready to spawn when temperatures hit the mark. If water temperatures are always above the mark, like here at ECHO, then the length of the day tells our sunfish when the time is right. In the past month, the pumpkinseed sunfish in our Upper River tank have initiated their spawning behavior; the same behaviors will likely not be observed in Lake Champlain for several more week.

So what happens? The males in the population stake out territories in shallow water by creating saucer-shaped nests, fanning silt away from the bottom and not letting other fishes near their nesting site:


When a female arrives, the male engages her in a dance-like spawning ritual. They swim in circles together, and the female dips to the side as they spawn:


Bluegill sunfish also engage in very similar behavior:


Once the male has spawned, often with multiple females, he continues to guard his nest from intruders until the eggs hatch and his offspring swim away together in a cluster.

While the behavior observed here at ECHO is interesting, there are larger concerns when we create changes in water temperatures in the wild. Two areas of concern are industrial cooling water releases and water releases from dams. Water is often a cheap and available resource for industrial operations for cooling power plants and other applications. Heat is essentially released as a by-product and is often regulated as a pollutant because of its effects on aquatic ecosystems, including alteration of animal life-cycles. When water is released from large reservoirs for energy production or flood control, temperatures vary from warmer surface waters to cooler (and sometimes oxygen-deprived) deeper waters. Again, there are regulations that require dam operators consider the type of water that they release. As with any human activity, there is always more to understand about our effects on the ecosystems that support us, and more creative solutions to the problems we cause that are yet to be discovered.