Breaking Bad News: Arrest in Meth-Related Solar Panel Theft

An evocative sign | Photo: Johnny Grim/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Here's something you're likely to hear more of in the months and years to come: a California man has been charged with possessing stolen property after police found $12,000 worth of stolen solar panels on his property.

Accoording to the Hi-Desert Star, 32-year-old Robert Shelton, out on parole on a burglary conviction, aroused the suspicions of San Bernardino County Sheriff's deputies when they noticed a vandalized rental truck near his house in the sprawling desert town north of Yucca Valley.

After obtaining a warrant, the deputies found 28 solar panels that turned out to have been stolen in July from Duke Energy's 9-megawatt Highlander Solar 2 facility northwest of Twentynine Palms.

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Deputies also found methamphetamine and associated paraphernalia in Shelton's house, and booked him Wednesday into the Morongo Basin Jail in Joshua Tree on suspicion of possessing drugs for sale. The discovery of the solar panels came during a subsequent search of Shelton's house.

This isn't the first time solar panels have been stolen: theft of photovoltaic panels attracted trade press attention a few years ago. Thieves were apparently targeting solar panels at remote wineries in Northern California as early as 2009, and that rash of thefts was still in progress as recently as last winter.

That last link is to a ReWire story from November in which a Napa County deputy sheriff alleged that pot growers wanting off-grid power were responsible for those earlier thefts. ReWire notes with some chagrin the observation we made at the end of that earlier piece:

[M]embers of an entirely different drug community would seem more likely suspects. Meth users go to great lengths to strip copper wiring out of homes for a few dollars in proceeds. Shiny new PV panels would seem to offer a significant temptation to people in straits as dire as those.

Look for thefts like this to grow if the state's methamphetamine epidemic swells while companies increasingly place mid-sized photovoltaic installations in remote parts of the California desert.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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