ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Illegal marijuana growers are increasingly using solar power to operate large-scale operations in an attempt to remain off the grid and avoid detection from law enforcement agents, authorities said.
In isolated regions of the country, law enforcement agencies say they are finding more growers going green and trying to be self-sufficient by drawing power directly from the sun.
New Mexico State Police recently busted up a marijuana operation around the Four Corners region that used solar panels to pump water. And authorities in California have stepped up enforcement against solar panel thefts from vineyards that they believe were headed to illegal growers.
"We're definitely seeing more and more of it," said New Mexico State Police Lt. Robert McDonald. "I think since the cartels down in Mexico are now having such a hard time getting their product up here that some growers are trying to grow it themselves and to (stop) us from finding them by using solar. It definitely makes it harder."
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 use 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 to avoid the need for massive power consumption from nearby power companies, tipping off local and federal authorities, investigators say.
The use also has sparked the demand of solar panels that has resulted in thefts of panels from homes and businesses.
In California's Napa Valley, wineries and vineyards two years ago reported a rash of solar panel thefts that authorities believe were linked to a ring that sold the panels to illegal growers.
Michael Honig, president of Honig Vineyard and Winery in Rutherford, Calif., said after installing 819 solar panels, thieves took off with around 40 panels. "Around 10 to 11 wineries were hit," Honig said. "So was a school."
The heists prompted stepped up enforcement from the Napa Valley Sheriff's Department who increased night patrols and strings, said Deputy Sheriff Jon Thompson.
"Here we had folks trying to do the right thing and go green and they were getting hit," said Thompson. "It hurt, especially when it's $17,000 a panel."
A string eventually nabbed three men who Thompson said were part of a ring that resold the panels.
"It's hard to say for sure but we think they were going directly to growers," said Thompson.
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