There's copper in them thar hills.

That's what thieves know about the 50,000-acre Altamont Wind Resource Area, and the electricity-generating turbines found there.

Wind company operators, as well as the Alameda County Sheriff"s Office both say that within the past six months to a year, trespassing and burglaries have increased at the wind farms, with thieves cutting and stealing the copper electrical cables used to operate the 5,400 windmills east of Livermore.

"It's getting pretty serious out there," said Rick Koebbe, president of PowerWorks LLC, which operates about 920 windmills in the Altamont. "In the last year, it's gotten pretty bad."

According to Sheriff"s Detective James Messina, copper is one of the hottest metals in the scrap business right now. Copper prices skyrocketed this summer, thanks mainly to construction booms in China and India.

"The theft of copper goes up and down depending on the market price," said Messina, who pointed out copper thefts have been on the rise in a lot of industries, including construction and agriculture.

Although prices have drifted down recently from the summer's high of $3.70 per pound — high grade copper was trading at $3.32 a pound on the New York Mercantile Exchange Friday — some are still willing to break the law and even risk their lives for the metal.

Copper thefts have been a national phenomenon. Construction sites, railroad signals and even shopping centers have been targets; just last week in Florida, thieves broke into an Orlando Utilities Commission junction box and pulled 10,000 feet of copper wiring from underground pipes.

Thefts of various metals — including aluminum and brass — have become so prevalent that last month, the National Crime Prevention Council and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries partnered to coordinate a law enforcement effort with the institute's 1,425 nationwide scrap recyclers to identify stolen materials and catch thieves. The initiative asked recyclers to require photo identification from sellers and to train employees to identify stolen materials, among other things.

Steve Stengel, spokesman for FPL Energy, which operates more than

2,000 windmills in the Altamont, said his company has not been caught totally by surprise by the increase in copper cable theft. He said the company's windmills in Palm Springs saw an uptick in burglaries about a year ago.

Stengel added the company's operations in the Midwest have not seen an increase in vandalism because the newer turbines there do not contain copper.

Stengel said stealing the cables while the blades are turning is extremely dangerous.

"These people who are doing this are risking their lives," Stengel said. "There are reports of people being electrocuted who try and do this. It is very dangerous."

It's also very costly. Once the copper is stripped from a windmill, it can take several days to a week to fix. Both Koebbe and Stengel say it's hard to put a dollar figure on what the theft of copper is to their companies, but it can range anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to $10,000, taking labor and loss of profits on the power not generated into account.

Altamont wind companies, however, aren't willing to take the thefts lying down. While the companies and the sheriff's office were loathe to reveal exact details of their anti-theft plans, Koebbe said he has around-the-clock security guards on patrol.

Stengel said his company is using "advanced technology" to foil any would-be robbers, but he would not be specific.

"All the companies in the Altamont are taking this very seriously," Stengel added.

Messina said the sheriff's office just a couple of months ago captured two men during a sting operation that involved a helicopter to find and catch would-be copper thieves.

"We are very aware of what is going on out there," Messina said.

Contact Chris Metinko at (510) 763-5418 or cmetinko@cctimes.com.