The wind still blows. But thieves are ripping off its harnesses.
Over the past six months burglars have repeatedly trespassed onto the Altamont wind farm, where they have cut and stolen copper cables used to operate thousands of windmills. The thievery has become so prevalent that Alameda County Sheriff’s Department deputies conducted an early-morning sting Sept. 1 and took two men into custody before the officers even launched their helicopters.
“We picked an area and targeted it. We used some advanced technology until we got lucky,” said sheriff’s Lt. Danny Dill.
There is no estimate of how many of the 5,400 windmills in the Altamont hills have been disabled. But Rick Koebbe, president of PowerWorks LLC, a Tracy-based wind company that operates 920 of the windmills, estimated that his company and a dozen others have spent more than $100,000 combined to fix damaged turbines.
“Every occurrence costs several thousands of dollars,” said Steve Stengel, spokesman for FPL Energy, a Miami-based power company that operates more than 2,000 windmills in the area.
Copper cables are needed to conduct electricity and turn the windmills at the Altamont, which, covering more than 78 square miles between Tracy and Livermore, is the world’s largest wind farm.
The windmills link to a complex of underground cables that plugs into the state’s power grid with enough wattage for nearly 180,000 people, or about two-thirds of the city of Stockton.
Thieves are stealing the copper cables “right and left,” said Lt. James Knudsen, an Alameda sheriff’s spokesman.
Burglars are becoming more brazen, too, Koebbe said. During one recent Saturday morning, alarms went off in the PowerWorks offices during a company meeting, alerting officials to an ongoing heist. Although many windmills are behind locked gates, thieves are climbing over the fences or cutting holes in the wire to gain access.
“They’re even doing it in the daylight and trying to take the stuff that’s underground now,” Koebbe said. “It shows some level of desperation I’ve never seen before.”
Fueled in part by the continuing building boom in China, this year has seen a nationwide boom of copper and aluminum theft as high market prices for the metals entice bandits to steal and sell it for scrap.
According to the national Commodities Exchange, high-grade copper hovered around $3.50 per pound last week, down from a summer high of $3.70. Industry officials say scrap recyclers typically pay about 55 percent of that, or about $1.92 per pound this week.
“No matter how much the value of copper is at scrap, it’s nowhere near as expensive as it is for the companies to replace the cable,” Dill said.
On Wednesday, the National Crime Prevention Council and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, or ISRI, announced a partnership to address metals theft. The new initiative will coordinate law enforcement strategies with 1,425 nationwide scrap recyclers to identify stolen materials and catch thieves.
Tactics include requiring photo identification from sellers, videotaping each transaction and prohibiting new production materials.
Universal Service Recycling, 3200 S. El Dorado St. in Stockton, belongs to the institute. Owner William Mendonca said he already employs most of the strategies spelled out last week.
“They (ISRI) address issues as they came up, and try to help us solve them,” he said. “Theft has certainly been an issue this year.”
In the Altamont, it can take days to several weeks to fix a tampered-with turbine depending on the availability of materials. In that downtime, Stengel said, energy consumers are going without a reliable and effective source of power.
“We have gotten very proactive and aggressive in trying to deal with this, not only because it costs us money, but in a bigger picture there’s the lost clean energy that Californians want,” Stengel said.
Koebbe said each of the wind companies with interest on the hills – including enXco Inc. of North Palm Springs, Global Renewable Energy Partners Inc. of La Jolla, AES Seawest Inc. of San Diego and G3 Energy of Dallas – is working with sheriff’s officials to implement newer and stricter antitheft devices.
He declined to state the exact nature of new technologies, however, as not to give potential thieves a heads-up.
“They (the burglars) seem to know what they’re doing, so we’re adding more provisions and will continue to do so until it stops,” Koebbe said. “We will catch and prosecute them.”
Said Dill: “As the technology grows, we’ll be able to do a lot better at this.”
By Rick Brewer
Record Staff Writer
Contact Rick Brewer at (209) 239-3324 or email@example.com
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