Solar Panel Thefts Heating Up

fromKQED

Solar panel theft is on the rise. The growing crime wave is particularly acute in Napa Valley where several dozen wineries have gone solar in recent years. Thieves are using Google Earth to locate solar arrays and breaking into vineyards at night to steal panels. Several wineries have been hit, some more than once.

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Solar panels are a hot commodity, and not just for residents and businesses that want to go green. It turns out that thieves also embrace clean technology. Solar panel thefts are on the rise, and the most popular targets include California wineries. What a disappointment. You're a vintner. You're sitting there, the thieves leave the bottles of wine alone and take the panel.

From member station KQED, Andrea Kissack reports.

ANDREA KISSACK: Michael Honig of Honig Winery in Napa Valley has been the victim of solar theft not once, not twice, but three times. The first time was a year ago when someone made off with 39 panels. He noticed something was missing one morning as he rode his bike past the winery's solar array tucked in between rows of cabernet vines.

Mr. MICHAEL HONIG (President, Honig Vineyard and Winery): First of all, I was like, what's wrong with this picture? It's kind of like the "Where's Waldo." It's like something doesn't seem right, and I got off my bike and I stopped and I said, oh, my God. Someone stole our panels.

KISSACK: It had only been about a year since Honig installed the $1.2 million array. A low chain-link fence with a small padlock and two dogs was his only security for 819 solar panels that are mounted about a foot off the ground. Honig thought he was doing something good for the community. It never occurred to him that he would be a victim of solar theft.

Mr. HONIG: We've done so many things, things that we really think are important to be a sustainable property and a sustainable business. It's like we do all these great things, and then some people that probably are selling these for cents on the dollar decide that they need another fix, so they'll steal some panels.

KISSACK: Metal theft in agricultural areas, particularly things like copper wire, has been a problem for years. But now that prices for scrap metal have fallen and tougher laws have been passed here in California to prosecute thieves, it seems criminals have turned their focus elsewhere. In the past year, more than 400 solar panels worth over $1,000 each have been stolen from vineyards throughout Napa County.

Deputy JON THOMPSON (Sheriff's Deputy, Napa Valley, California): Nobody saw this coming, and nobody alarmed their panel.

KISSACK: Napa Valley sheriff's Deputy Jon Thompson says ground-based solar arrays hidden in the valley's endless vineyards have been an easy target.

Dep. THOMPSON: Nobody had the forethought to think that, hey, these panels are going to be an item to be stolen.

KISSACK: Under the cover of darkness, thieves have been crashing through gates and backing up their trucks, taking 20, 30, 70 panels at a time. Each panel, measuring two-by-three feet, weighs more than 30 pounds. Deputy Thompson speculates the thieves may be finding the arrays by using online tools such as Google Earth.

After being hit twice, Michael Honig got wise and installed an alarm system. When thieves returned to his winery for a third time, Deputy Thompson says they got caught in the act.

Dep. THOMPSON: The new system that Honig installed, basically had picked up that - it's an alarm system - that the panels were in jeopardy. The sheriff's department was contacted. At that point in time, the deputy who responded spotted suspects fleeing the area.

KISSACK: In this area right here?

Mr. THOMPSON: In this area, through the vineyards.

KISSACK: Three local men were apprehended, two pled guilty and are serving 16 months in prison. A third is still going through the courts. So far, authorities have not recovered any stolen panels, deepening the mystery. The panels are not likely valuable for their component parts, raising the possibility of a black market for solar panels.

There is a lot of speculation where they're going. Some say marijuana growers in Mendocino County are stealing panels to hide their electricity use. Others believe the panels are going offshore. In some Southern California solar heists, the panels have turned up for sale on Craigslist. In the meantime, the crime wave has spawned a boom in solar security systems.

Mr. TYSON BERG: (Director of Business Development, Gridlock Solar Security): It's very busy. People are calling me nonstop.

KISSACK: Tyson Berg is with Gridlock Solar Security, a Sonoma County startup that manufactures security for solar arrays. He shows me Gridlock's basic device which looks like a fuse box with two lights on the top. A wire runs through each panel, and if it's cut, the system makes up to eight phone calls, including to the property owners and police. It also has a 120-decibel alarm system. So in addition to the calls and the lights, a siren goes off.

Mr. BERG: If you're standing right here, you'd pretty much go deaf.

KISSACK: In addition to security, federal legislation may come to the rescue. Congressman Mike Thompson, who represents the Napa Valley, has included a provision against solar thefts in the Solar Technology Roadmap Act. The bill will create a national registry for solar panel serial numbers to try to short circuit the solar crooks.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Kissack in Napa.

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