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In California, 12 people have been arrested in the Altamont Pass so far this year allegedly for stealing wind turbine parts from operating wind farms. Theft is now so widespread that operators' profits are being eaten away.

Of those arrested, some have been caught with copper wire ripped from turbines. Others had apparently stolen circuit-breakers, says Detective Greg Swetnam. Already this year reported losses in the Alameda County portion of the area exceed $300,000, he says. Theft has risen this year because the price of scrap metal is higher, making the crime more profitable.

Some wind companies are taking precautions. Four people arrested in late July -- carrying $1800 worth of stolen copper wire -- had set off an alarm at a Kenetech Windpower turbine. The company had immediately called law enforcement officials. Ultimately three were convicted and are serving two years in state prison, while the fourth received a far lighter sentence. One of the thieves had an extensive criminal record, including armed robbery. Just the night before his arrenst, the criminal had even stolen an estimated $3500 in goods from a SeaWest site.

In another incident, an estimated $30,000 in circuit-breakers was stolen from Tera Power in mid August. The next night, the same thieves apparently returned and stole about the same amount of goods again, says Swetnam. In this case, when the thieves were arrested, sheriffs deputies found an unusual clue. The men were carrying a schedule of the night's intended work and even the name of a Sacramento company that was to buy the stolen goods.

The going rate for "hot" wire is $1-1.20 per foot of wire on the black market, meaning intruders can make easily make $270 from the 180 feet of wire on one turbine -- and experienced thieves need take just 20 minutes to rip the wire from a turbine. Swetnam, who oversees investigations in the rural Altamont Pass area, estimates more than 50 people have been arrested for wind farm thefts since 1988. Worst for wind companies is that some deductibles on insurance are as high as $25,000.

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