"The thieves are very brazen, often in teams of two to three," says Bradford Adams of Whitewater Energy Corp, which operates 224 turbines under contract in the pass. "One will be a spotter, while another will catch the attention of security, while the third will cut the cables." The thieves have even imitated service crews, he says, cutting down cables in broad daylight after new cable had just been hung. "They were equipped with hard hats, tools and a truck that looked like a maintenance service truck."
The thieves target the thick cabling running through the turbine tower from the nacelle to the ground. Adams says they know precisely what they are doing, breaking into the towers to cut the power by twisting the breakers. After cutting the cabling at ground level, they climb to the top to make the final cuts and then haul the copper into a waiting truck or stash it for later recovery.
In early January, Adams' field crew found 140 metres of copper wire stolen from a wind plant and weighing half a ton hidden in bushes for later retrieval. Acting on the tip, local authorities -- which Adams describes as "tired of coming out here for this" -- set up a sting operation. A team of 12 police officers and special investigators waited for the thieves to retrieve the cabling and then made five arrests.
Global market prices for copper have taken a nosedive recently, but the culprits are hardly following commodities' reports. The cabling from one GE 1.5 MW turbine can fetch between $3000 and $5000 as scrap metal. But it costs $25,000 for the operator to replace it, with revenue losses and labour costs on top of that. Whitewater's insurance deductibles are such that the theft losses must be absorbed by the company.
It is far from alone with the problem. The reported $1.2 million in damages over the past year also includes theft from turbines owned by FPL Energy and Shell Wind Energy. Adams says the companies have put a lot of effort into protecting the turbines, including the hiring of retired FBI agents, roaming security teams, armed undercover security, as well as installing new protection on the towers, alarms, and reinforcing doors, among other things. But as security tightens around some turbines, the thefts shift to others that are not as well protected.
"All the equipment out there is intermingled," says another turbine operator in the area. "The valley out there is getting creamed." He points out that the older, lattice style towers -- many of them owned by FPL Energy -- are the most vulnerable and regularly targeted since they can be easily accessed and climbed. The San Gorgonio wind farms are on land bisected by a busy freeway and relatively close to Los Angeles, making them particularly exposed to ransacking. The damage sustained over the past year is said to be worse than the entire previous nine years combined.
"These thieves not only hurt operators such as FPL, but local land owners who do not receive payment during lost generation periods," says FPL's Peter Luther. "In addition, there is an environmental impact due to having to make up the power with less environmentally friendly non-green alternate power generation sources."
Luther sees co-operation with the scrap metal recyclers or further regulation of their operations as one promising solution. He would like to see copper over a certain gauge trigger increased scrutiny from the scrappers, or perhaps even a system of rewarding scrappers by allowing them to keep the metal they gather in exchange for tips leading to a conviction. "If the thieves continue to have an outlet for this stuff, the problem will continue," he says.
Whitewater's Adams sees merit in Luther's suggestion, but he would like to see hardware solutions from the wind industry. Tower manufacturers could help by creating a thick access door, reinforced louvers for airflow, robust locking mechanism and items of that nature, he says. He acknowledges, it is not high on the list of priorities for a hard pressed wind industry with a tendency to short sightedness. "I think there's two sets of people: those who want to build new projects and get them in the ground, and then those who continue to run the project for the life of the turbine. For the folks who buy the turbines, that's the last thing on their minds."