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Napa Wineries Confront a Solar-Powered Crime Wave

As wineries adopt green energy, thieves are stealing their solar panels

Lynn Alley
Posted: June 30, 2009

More than 100 wine lovers gathered in the Napa Valley town of Yountville on June 20 to mark the summer solstice with the 2nd annual Solarbration, a party dedicated to wineries employing solar energy. Winery staffers from solar-powered cellars such as Honig, Larkmead, Long Meadow Ranch, Saintsbury and Silverado poured tastes of their wines and explained their solar systems to guests. The evening highlighted a continuing trend among wineries, particularly in Napa Valley, of adding solar energy to their green bag of tricks. With roughly 80 percent of installation costs now being covered by federal and state funding, more and more wineries are jumping on the bandwagon.

But less than 10 miles away, another winery's solar energy equipment was being targeted by thieves. Last Thursday night, someone stole 40 solar panels from Harris Ranch Napa Valley, a winery nestled in the Mayacamas mountains about two miles from Highway 29. The 40 panels made up about a third of the winery's installation.

This was not the first theft of panels from a Napa winery. Both Honig Vineyard and Winery and ZD Wines have been hit by thieves not once but twice in recent months.

It's an odd side effect of the region's embrace of clean energy. Napa wineries top the list of solar-powered wine industry operations, according to Rob Erlichman, owner of San Francisco—based Sunlight Electric, which has installed many of the solar projects in Napa Valley. Erlichman says that 48 of the estimated 89 solar-powered wineries in California are located in Napa, while neighboring Sonoma County has an estimated 20.

Last November, thieves made off with 39 of Honig's panels, not an easy feat since each of the 2-foot by 3-foot panels weighs about 35 pounds and is bolted into place. The panels cost about $1,000 a piece, which, combined with the fact that the all three of the targeted wineries' installations are located in the middle of vineyards, far from buildings, makes them tempting targets. (Other wineries install the panels on top of buildings.) Honig reported the theft, and police investigated but have not arrested anyone. Then, in April, Honig was hit again.

"The biggest challenge we've faced with regard to our solar operation [Honig derives 100 percent of its energy needs from solar power] is that we've had two separate thefts," said Regina Weinstein, director of marketing.

Michael Honig, winery president, said he was saddened to be the target of thieves while trying to accomplish something for the good of the whole community. "We are creating power right in the middle of summer when power usage for homes is highest. When you get enough wineries doing this, then you don't need to build additional power plants."

ZD Wines, located along the Silverado Trail in Rutherford, has also been hit twice. According to ZD president Brett de Leuze, the winery was also victimized last November and again this April. Sheriff's deputies in charge of the investigation have speculated that the same party is responsible for both incidents.

"Our solar panels are ground-mounted at the far end of our vineyard. And in November, we are not regularly in the vineyard, so we didn't even notice the theft until several weeks after it happened," said De Leuze. "The first time they took 200 of our 700 panels, and the second time, 44."

While there are few leads, there's plenty of speculation as to the thieves' motives. Erlichman, whose company installed both Honig and ZD's solar panels, said, "Who would want to steal 20 solar panels at a time? And where can they go so that the panels will not be spotted by passersby or sheriff's deputies? One possibility is [that it's] marijuana growers from more rural Lake or Mendocino counties who want to disguise the fact that they are using a lot of extra electricity. Excess energy usage is one way authorities find pot-growing operations. Another possibility is that an unscrupulous residential solar contractor may be using the Napa Valley as his warehouse." A lot of 40 panels is enough to equip an average-size home for solar power.

"We're deploying new technologies to make it harder to steal the panels, so that thieves will either give up or won't easily be able to get them. We have a responsibility to the customer and the industry to see that this doesn't continue to happen," said Erlichman.

Unlike at Honig and ZD, access to Harris Ranch Napa Valley is not easy. Thieves had to drive up a one-lane private road and cut through a fence to access Harris Ranch's ground-mounted solar panels. In addition, vineyard workers live on the property and were presumably at home at the time of the theft.

The thefts are sparking fears among winery owners who haven't been hit yet. Chris Hall is national sales manager for his family's Long Meadow Ranch, which is a neighbor of Harris Ranch. All of Long Meadow's facilities, including its winery, are 100 percent solar powered. Until the theft at Harris Ranch last week, Hall believed that his winery was too far off the beaten track to attract thieves' attention. "We are very concerned about theft," said Hall. "It's a substantial capital investment in the winery. People have been trying all sorts of security measures to make theft more difficult. We'd like to see it made of higher concern to the sheriff's department."

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