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01.14.09

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Sunshine Crimes

New adventures from the 'no good deed goes unpunished' files

By Juliane Poirier Locke


The latest local green crime? Stealing solar panels. In Sonoma, Napa, Marin and beyond, thieves with enough electronics knowledge to disassemble a solar panel without ruining it are trespassing by night and even by day to rip off panels worth tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Solar panels have been stolen from wineries, elementary schools, homes—even from a church and an organic farm. Is nothing sacred? Welcome to the solar portion of our new green economy.

A key selling point of solar power has always been that no one can own the sun. An upbeat consequence of sunlight being ubiquitous is that no one has to kill or be killed for any market control disguised as patriotic duty. Three cheers for Brother Sun. I see a Nobel Prize looming.

Our planet's star ignores political boundaries and economic status, dishing out radiance and free vitamin D to all. Yet all that energetic brightness needs to be concentrated in order to create electricity, and for that you need photovoltaic cell technology. No one can own the sun, but some can own solar panels. And others can steal them. The fact that anyone would steal solar panels is evidence enough that we have established a green economy around here.

Solar power has been harnessed for centuries, and sophisticated solar technology has existed for over a hundred years. The first solar steam engine was built in 1861. But not until the 1970s did solar technology get a federally assisted nudge toward mainstream. During the feigned "oil crises," while we were hostages of an oil embargo, consumers waiting in long lines at gas stations became suddenly interested in alternative energy sources.

During that time, regional solar buff Allan Book studied the technology and eventually built his own off-the-grid home which still runs on the solar system he installed in 1986. "In those days, each panel was 53 watts and cost $375," Book explains. "They don't make those anymore."

Back then, getting a solar panel stolen was about as likely as getting an accordion ripped off—you know the old joke: Lock your truck with an accordion (solar panel) in the cab, and when you come back, the windows will be broken and there will be three more accordions (solar panels) on the front seat.

Not so in this economy. Witness the forbidding wire wrapped around the municipal solar panels recently installed in downtown Sebastopol. The next green industry will be a solar panel night watch service, followed by new, theft–proof solar systems.

Among the emerging green collar jobs are so-called maid services for solar systems. "If you can wash a window," one recruiting service claims, "you can clean a solar panel." Entrepreneurs are creating green industries where none existed before.

And let's not forget the contributions of honest citizens, doing what they've always done to turn in the bad guys. In Napa, a resident who had read in the newspaper about the recent thefts of solar panels picked up the phone one evening and reported the license plate and travel direction of a suspicious-looking, tarp-covered truck. Police caught up with the truck, pulled it over and found it loaded with stolen panels. The thwarted thieves were arrested and the panels returned.

 In other parts of the country, citizens may be expecting a new green economy to launch with drum rolls next Wednesday in Washington, D.C. Sure, we can all look forward to intelligent policy that will shift the country away from the self-destructive course we've been on. But here in the North Bay (where, incidentally, the number of inauguration parties per capita suggests enthusiasm on the far side of wild), no one is looking to the new administration to kick-start a green economy for us—we're already living it.

Green is a community-based economic model, and solar is only a portion of ours. We can look at the other portions later. Right now, I've got to run. I need to start picking out inauguration-party outfits for next week. One for each party.

 Award-winning journalist Juliane Poirier Locke is a sustainability writer and the author of 'Vineyards in the Watershed: Sustainable Winegrowing in Napa County.' Poirier Locke has been reporting on socio-eco issues in the North Bay for over a decade and joins us this week as our new Green Zone columnist.


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