Pubdate: Wed, 26 Dec 2012
Source: Times-Standard (Eureka, CA)
Copyright: 2012 Times-Standard
Author: Grant Scott-Goforth, The Times-Standard


Law enforcement around the country report that illegal marijuana
growers are turning to solar panels to power indoor lights. New Mexico
state police recently busted a marijuana operation around the Four
Corners region that used solar panels to pump water, according to the
Associated Press, and authorities in California have stepped up
enforcement against solar panel thefts from vineyards that they
believe were headed to illegal growers.

On the North Coast, however, authorities say that solar-powered pot
grows wouldn't make sense.

"They'd have to cover a mountainside," Eureka Police Chief Murl
Harpham said. "PG&E is the cheapest power you can get."

While Harpham has an array of solar panels on his own mountain cabin
that powers lights and appliances, the amount of energy needed to grow
marijuana indoors under halide lights far exceeds the generating power
of a few panels, and local law enforcement officials say they've never
seen solar power used for indoor grows. It's expensive to install,
inefficient for growers' needs and doesn't provide much protection
from nosy cops.

Humboldt County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Steve Quenell has only seen
solar power used to power fans -- "a few arrays here and there,
typically on the large greenhouses."

Quenell said those sophisticated grows likely only use solar because
they are off the grid, and agreed that solar panels could not provide
the extreme amount of energy -- a "crapton," by Quenell's estimate --
that grow lights need.

In the North Coast's towns and cities, some growers might see logic in
using solar panels on residential houses to conceal high energy use,
which could potentially tip off police to an indoor grow, Harpham said.

But according to Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spokeswoman Brittany
McKannay, PG&E doesn't just hand out energy usage statistics for houses.

"Confidentiality to our customers is something we take seriously."
McKannay said.

While PG&E investigates energy theft and other issues, by the time it
hands over records sought by subpoenas or search warrants, law
enforcement is already in the process of investigating a suspected
marijuana grow. PG&E officials have said they are uncomfortable with
their employees being made to look like enforcers, which could lead to
confrontations with nervous marijuana growers.

"When it comes to just usage, that's not something we're monitoring,"
McKannay said.

The Associated Press reported last month that marijuana growers
elsewhere, in an attempt to avoid detection, have turned to solar power.

During last month's bust in New Mexico, agents raided a solar-operated
facility and seized around 250 marijuana plants that were between six-
to eight-feet tall in an isolated area of Rio Arriba County.

In 2010, police in Socorro, N.M., pulled more than 1,500 plants from
three locations in a marijuana operation that detectives called "very
elaborate and sophisticated." Police said the operation used solar
panels, water pumps, batteries and hundreds of yards of hose that
functioned on timers.

The use of expensive solar panels allows illegal marijuana operations
avoid the need for massive power consumption from nearby power
companies, tipping off local and federal authorities, investigators

Solar power works in two ways: Energy gathered from the panels can be
stored in batteries, or the panels can be wired to an existing utility

Most residential solar panels are wired to feed into the grid. This
saves a homeowner from purchasing expensive batteries and can make the
homeowner a bit of money if they end up providing more power to the
grid than they use. At the very least, the homeowner's electricity
bill drops.

Arcata Mayor Michael Winkler said he hasn't heard of solar panels
being used in grow houses busted by Arcata Police.

"I just don't see that there's any practicality at all," he said. "It
might be a gesture on the part of a grower to put up panels but
doesn't make much sense."

Winkler, who is an energy consultant by trade, said 97 percent of a
sun ray's energy would be lost in converting sunlight to grow light.

"It's so interruptive in getting lights to the plants," he said. "It's
like having a three percent skylight."

Anthony Silvaggio, a Humboldt State University sociology professor and
member of the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana
Research, said solar powered grows don't add up financially or

"I don't think that's gonna be a trend anytime soon," he said. "The
amount of space you'd need to power an industrial grow -- you'd need
an acre. It'd be ridiculous."

Solar panel construction and the deforestation required to put in a
sufficient number of panels would make solar growing ecologically unfriendly.

"It's not an appropriate use of the technology because you can grow it
in the sun," Silvaggio said.

Arcata voted a law into effect this year that will tax residents who
exceed a PG&E electricity usage baseline. Under the measure, high
usage households that exceed the baseline by 600 percent would be
charged an additional 45 percent of the electricity portion of a bill.

While the tax was designed to discourage residential grow houses -- as
well as legal high energy users -- Winkler doesn't think that growers
will rush to build solar arrays in order to slip under the tax threshold.

"What would make more sense for them would be to switch to higher
efficiency lights," he said.

Silvaggio said that even indoor growers looking at solar to shave a
little money off of their monthly bill is unlikely.

A solar setup costs $25,000 -- more if it's installed by a black
market electrician -- and takes five years to pay for itself,
Silvaggio said. That's a big investment for a business that could be
shut down by police at any moment.

McKannay said that state utility regulations would also discourage
solar powered grows.

Solar panel arrays must be set up according to a residence's historic
usage so that a customer can lower their bill but not necessarily make
scads of money selling power to a utility, McKannay said.

That invites a round of inspections that growers aren't likely to
invite upon themselves, Silvaggio said.

"There's a whole sort of slew of procedural things that happen," he

And while law enforcement in sun-rich areas like New Mexico may herald
a burgeoning trend, that's not something that's been seen on the North
Coast, or is likely to be, Silvaggio said.

"When you're looking at marijuana production, it doesn't make sense to
do it like that," he said. 
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