Sun-Drenched Crime Spree in Wine Country

Bolting solar panels to the ground isn't stopping thieves

Wine Country is experiencing an unusual crime spree.  The target of the thieves isn't an expensive merlot or pinot, but something less fruity: solar panels.

The latest hit happened at an undisclosed winery in Rutherford early Monday morning.  The Napa County Sheriff's Office says 25 solar panels worth  $30,000 were stolen.
It is the 16th theft of solar panels in Napa County since January 2008.  Ten of the businesses were wine-related.  That adds up to about $400,000 worth of panels.

The majority of the thefts happen late at night or early in the morning at rural locations, Capt. Tracey Stuart said.  She added that she thinks the panels are probably being resold.

"It's not something somebody can just throw in the back of a vehicle.  It requires some planning, probably more than one person and also to be able to do this when people aren't around to observe them because it's not something you can do in five minutes," Stuart said.

ZD Winery told NBC Bay Area's Jodi Hernandez they have been hit twice by solar thefts.  In response, they've made security improvements in hopes of keeping the thieves at bay for a third time including the addition of tamper resistant labels on the panels and covering the bolts in apoxy.

Owner Robert deLeuze called it disheartening  because he was doing his best to help out the environment.  He said to have somebody come in and shut it down was frustrating.

"The thieves came around from the backside.  They cut our neighbors fence.  Came back around the property and cut our fence again and entered from our neighbors property.  They had to know what they were doing. They had to disconnect the electrical properly and unbolt the panels from the array and get them off the structure and onto their truck and they did it quite efficiently," deLeuze said.

Other wineries have put up fences or tried to bolt the panels to the ground.  So far that isn't stopping the thieves. 

In the latest case, the thieves drove through a field and knocked down two trees on their way to the panels.

Investigators think there is more than one group responsible.

The sheriff's department is working with the Napa County Vintners Association to help wineries protect themselves.

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