Thieves Nab Vineyard's Solar Panels

Owner of isolated property wonders whether promoting use of solar energy led to theft

by Kate Lavin
About 40 solar panels were stolen from an array at Harris Ranch Napa Valley. The theft was discovered Thursday.
Rutherford, Calif. -- Solar panel bandits struck again in Napa Valley, where vineyard workers at Harris Ranch last Thursday discovered 40 panels missing from the winery's secluded estate in the Mayacamas foothills.

The bloc represented about one third of the winery's panels, the harnessed energy from which is used mostly to pump water for vineyard irrigation. (In addition to growing organic Cabernet Sauvignon, Harris Ranch Napa Valley makes and sells organic olive oil and wildflower honey.)

Located on a private one-lane road 2 miles from Highway 29, Harris Ranch seems an unlikely choice for thieves--there is only one way in and one way out, and vineyard workers live on the property, meaning someone was almost certainly home when the crime occurred.

"The thieves cut the wires off the fence to gain access," said Jody Harris, who runs the organic family farm with his sister, Ginny Harris Gable. "I've actually seen and heard of this going on recently, but I am way up in the hills, so I never thought I would be a victim of this."

Honig Vineyard & Winery in late November reported nearly 40 of its photovoltaic panels stolen: See Wines & Vines' coverage. In a scene identical to the Harris Ranch incident, thieves at Honig removed individual panels from two bottom rows. According to Harris, panel arrays are commonly sold in lots of 20, so a professional solar panel thief may have gone in looking to take exactly 40 panels.

"They could probably sell exactly 40 in one lot, and that's a good size for an average house," Harris said, adding that his panels, installed in May 2004, are valued at about $1,000 each. The system was insured, Harris said, although the insurance company has not yet made a judgment about compensating Harris Ranch Napa Valley for the loss.

The thieves had to do some unbolting in order to remove the panels, Harris said, and some tools were found at the scene of the crime. Napa County Sheriff's officers who responded seized the tools, and Harris said they were trying to recover fingerprints.

Online presence

The Napa Sheriff's Office believes thieves may have left behind tools used to unbolt solar panels in the theft.
In the hours after the theft was discovered, Harris Gable became suspicious of how anyone knew about the solar array at Harris Ranch, and quickly discovered that a simple Internet search could act like a map to most solar-powered vineyards in the area. "I'm suspicious that they're picking up on it through the Internet," said Harris Gable's brother, Jody Harris. "I think they can cover a lot of ground just typing into Google."

Officer Jeff Matlock of the Napa County Sheriff's Department investigative team said there are no leads in the case as of now, but the department is investigating. "It's become a more prevalent problem--not only in the Napa Valley, but all over the Bay Area," In late December the Napa County Sheriff's Department apprehended two men believed responsible for stealing solar panels from the Napa Water Facility. The incident was followed one month later by the heist of 90 solar panels from a water facility about 50 miles away in Marin County, highlighting a growing problem across the Bay Area.

"We think of it as such a safe place," Harris said of his hamlet up Whitehall Lane. "Mostly it's just so violating. It's puzzling to think that someone came on my property and did this."

If you have any information about the theft from Harris Ranch Napa Valley, call the Sheriff's office of investigations at (707) 253-4591; or phone Jody Harris at (707) 967-8400.
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