The educational observatory in Chico, California was the city’s first all-solar building. And now, hardly more than a week after the police arrested a suspect in the case of the theft of solar panels off a Chico elementary school, the observatory might have to shut down its solar operations due to the theft of three of its roof-mounted panels. The director of the Chico Community Observatory said the facility will stay open to host a couple of field trips this week, but after that, it will have to close until the solar panels have been replaced. He noted that
burglary for profit may have been the motive in the crime, but said the panels were crudely removed by someone who probably didn’t know what they were doing.
To me, that’s almost the saddest part: that on top of wantonly wrecking the property of this nonprofit community organization, the thief (or thieves, seems more probable to me, considering the bulk and weight of the panels) knew so little about the technology at hand that the panels themselves were most likely damaged. If so, no one will be able to get good out of them now.
And why? Yeah, I was flippant in my first blog post on this subject, joking that at least we know solar panels are really popular now–people finally want to steal them! (Or at least a weird dark element of Chico society does.) But there is some truth here: solar is mainstream enough at this stage that mostly everyone knows it’s (a) a viable way to reduce your electric bill and get clean energy, and (b) very expensive. Most people don’t realize all the pieces that go into a solar PV system–I know because I talk to lots of folks who come to GetSolar to research solar. Maybe the thought is that if you can steal solar panels, you can get “free” electricity, without realizing the need for a master electrician to install the system, an inverter to convert the charge from DC to AC current, and all the myriad other elements of solar.
Another motive, of course, is the pure stupid malice behind so many acts of vandalism. But this particular kind of vandalism involves getting on top of a building, removing heavy pieces of advanced technology from their custom-fitted moldings, and having a plan to smuggle out the evidence. It’s a bit advanced for simple malice. And yet, who would buy obviously used (due to damage from the theft and transport) solar panels? Well north of San Francisco, Chico is not the kind of densely populated urban area in which such a product could melt effortlessly into a brisk black market trade. Urban, yes; and could panels be transported easily once stolen, also yes; but why Chico? It seems like too much of a coincidence that this city of just over 100,000 residents could be attracting “solar thieves” from other locations: it’s not like the Bay Area has a shortage of installed PV systems. We don’t know yet if the suspect the police arrested for the school theft was out on bail at the time of the observatory incident–that would certainly be a neat wrap-up, if it turns out to be the same suspect. But it might turn out that suspect was not responsible for either solar panel theft–and then it’s back to square one.
It’s sad that such a beautiful technology, being used for the good of a whole community, could get pillaged in this way. It’s not on the same level as poisoning the town well, but it’s still fiercely anti-social. Let’s hope the community of Chico, California isn’t deterred by this from pursuing solar, and that the police figure out the real story here quickly. Remember: always pursue solar projects with a trusted, qualified solar installer.