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Mountain News: Do cell phones belong in wilderness areas?



ASPEN, Colo. — Earlier this winter, climber and skier Colter Hinchliffe and a friend were engulfed in an avalanche deep in the backcountry. It wasn't a designated wilderness, but it was wilderness-type lands.

The friend suffered a broken leg, so Hinchliffe got out his cell phone. They had service, and the local search and rescue team was able to respond with a helicopter because the cell phone had a GPS feature.

"We were rescued quickly and safely," Hinchliffe told the Aspen Daily News. "If we hadn't had a phone, or if there hadn't been any coverage, we would have spent a long and cold night out."

Still, he has mixed feelings about uses of cell phones in wilderness.

"I am concerned about people misusing their phones, calling for help just because they sprained their ankle. I feel that a big part of the wilderness experience is being able to get yourself out," said Hinchliffe.

The story illustrated the various ambivalences in Aspen and elsewhere about increased cellular coverage in wilderness. Pitkin County has set out to boost broadband infrastructure. One potential repercussion of that investment, pointed out the Daily News' John Fayhee, is expanded cell phone coverage — including into the designated wilderness areas of the county.

The Wilderness Society, an organization with 700,000 members, has been wary about adding infrastructure adjacent to wilderness areas, such as cell towers on the edge of Mount Rainier National Park. But the organization's Paul Sanford also noted that it may be impossible to keep cell phones out of wilderness areas. Nor does he think they're necessarily a bad thing.

"The Wilderness Society believes the wilderness experience ought to be as free of technology as possible. But we also want young people to experience wilderness, and cell phones are integrated into the consciousness of most young people. They enjoy taking selfies," said Sanford.

"They like Instagram. By sharing the impressions of wilderness, they are spreading the word, much the same way earlier-era photographers did. Who is to say that experiencing the wilderness with a cell phone is any less gratifying than experiencing it without a phone."

Hitting the 100-per-cent mark for renewables

TAOS, N.M. — Like nearly all places, Taos and adjoining communities consume fossil fuels voraciously. Most of the electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, and homes are heated by natural gas and propane. Cars and trucks are fuelled by gasoline and diesel.

Can all this be converted to renewables? It's a tall task, but a group called Renewable Taos Inc. has a vision for this giant energy transition. At the centre of this vision is Kit Carson Electric Cooperative. Until last year, it got its electricity from Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which also provided electricity to 43 other co-ops, the Rocky Mountain stated, including several that deliver electricity to Durango, Telluride, and Crested Butte.

Now, Kit Carson contracts with Guzman Energy Group, and together they have a goal of dramatically increasing solar energy production locally to match local energy consumption. The aim is to add up to 30 megawatts of solar generation by 2023. Coupled with battery storage, directors think it can provide virtually all of the co-op's needs for day-time power.

Doing so can save the co-op's 30,000 members more than US$50 million during the next 10 years, according to a press release issued by Kit Carson.

This, according to a report in the Taos News, is part of a broader vision to eventually deliver 200 megawatts of generation, providing electricity not just for lights and power saws and so forth, but ultimately for electric cars to displace gas and diesel. Switching homes to electric heat to reduce natural gas and propane use is also part of the big vision.

Bob Bresnahan, a member of Renewable Taos and a director of Kit Carson Electric, said the financing is in place for six or seven solar projects this year. Solar has dropped 80 per cent in the last decade, and he predicts even deeper reductions: from 4.8 cents per kilowatt-hour today to 2.4 cents. He also predicted price reductions in battery storage systems.