90 solar panels stolen from California water treatment plant

Jan. 9--Thieves this week swiped 90 solar panels that power Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District's water treatment plant in north San Rafael, causing damage and losses that could top $135,000, officials said Friday.

The theft at 300 Smith Ranch Road occurred early Thursday between midnight and 6:30 a.m., district manager Mark Williams said.

The bandits bypassed two locked gates by using a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. access key, police spokeswoman Margo Rohrbacher said. A lock to the fenced-in area where the panels were housed was cut.

In addition to the theft, damage was reported to a portion of the panel support structure and the electrical wiring used to convey energy from the panels to the PG&E power grid, district officials said. The treatment plant remained online.

The area, which housed 3,444 Sharp 200-watt solar panels prior to the theft, is accessible by many groups, including the company that provided the solar panels, the utility and others, police said. The 5-by-6-foot panels are valued at about $1,000 each.

"Solar panels have serial numbers," Rohrbacher said. "We're working with (the solar company) to provide us with that information."

The heist is the second in recent months that Las Gallinas has been the victim. In October, thieves made off with less than $50 worth of copper wire. The theft, while small, forced the closure of a recycled water treatment plant for about a week.

Extra security measures were being implemented but were not complete when

Thursday's theft occurred. Officials said they will step up measures, and do not yet know if public access to the district's recreational lands will be affected.

"Certainly we'll be weighing all the options to minimize exposure to theft in the future," Williams said. "We're very concerned about it. We're trying to do the right thing to protect the environment. It's frustrating -- there's an individual out there willing to steal solar panels."

Solar-panel theft is a growing problem in the Bay Area, with crimes reported in San Rafael, Novato, Bolinas, Napa and several East Bay communities, police said.

In August, the Bolinas organic farm Star Route Farms was hit. Bandits hauled off about $20,000 in solar panels mounted behind the Bolinas-Stinson Elementary School.

Earlier last summer, Contra Costa County sheriff's deputies arrested a Pittsburg man with solar panels stolen from the Pleasanton School District. In the spring, St. Anselm's Episcopal Church in Lafayette was hit twice. Napa Valley College reported the theft of about $40,000 in solar panels in June.

About six months ago, five solar panels were reported stolen from San Rafael High School, police said. The 5-by-6-foot panels were similar to equipment installed at commercial businesses and homes.

Last month, 10 solar panels valued at about $10,000 were stolen from a law firm on Rush Landing Road in Novato.