LONDON — Solar power has many devotees: manufacturers, investors, green energy enthusiasts… and thieves. Criminal gangs are increasingly targeting the valuable PV panels, cabling and other hardware in solar installations – but the industry is taking on the challenge of stopping them.
‘These panels are worth inordinate amounts and are relatively easy to steal,’ says Benoit Rolland, managing director of Tenesol. ‘Entire systems can disappear in a few hours.’
These well-organised crimes often take place in the dead of night when a group of thieves armed with tools and a truck can quickly remove large quantities of solar panels or – in some cases – every part of a complete PV system. According to a recent study by US specialist insurer SolarInsure, the past few years has seen a significant increase in solar panel robbery. Solar thefts grew by 15% in 2009 compared with the previous year and some believe that figure has risen by 15% each year since 2002.
‘There was 19% increase year over year from 2009 to 2010,’ says Mike Smith, senior vice president of sales at SolarInsure. ‘The top three locations for theft are solar arrays located in rural areas, wineries and schools.’
American schools are being hit particularly hard. Smith gives a figure of approximately US$8.5 million for solar panel theft losses in school districts over the last two years. And the problem isn’t just confined to the US. In the UK, for example, 304 panels worth some £100,000 (€121,124) were stolen from a solar project in North Yorkshire in the November of 2011.
Though manufacturers warranty solar panels and can even guarantee their electricity generation, increasingly some form of physical protection that prevents panel removal is needed. Indeed, some insurers now demand that security measures are in place before they will cover an installation. With premiums rising by 20%-50% following a claim and doubling or more in the event of multiple claims, investing in a security system looks like common sense.
‘Security measures we recommend and sometimes require on all systems include fencing, security fasteners, alarms and system monitoring tools, movement detection lights and on-site security guards,’ says Smith.
Using ‘tighten-and-break’ anti-theft screws to fasten panels to mounting frames is a popular solution. Simple to install, they are a straightforward way to increase security. When the applied tightening torque reaches a critical value, the hexagonal head of the nut breaks off completely, leaving a conical head that no wrench can grip.
‘On easily accessible flat roofs or with small ground-mounted systems, where customers are worried about potential theft we use snap-off headed bolts which must be drilled out to remove the module frame clamps,’ says Smith. ‘This generally will deter potential thieves. Installations using standard fixing bolts could be at risk.’
Some installations are secure simply due to their location. For example, the majority of UK solar installations are on the roofs of houses and offices. Generally two storeys high or more, a crook would need scaffolding to access the panels and plenty of time to remove them – hard to achieve in an urban environment. However, rural systems are vulnerable, with CCTV or on-site security guards seemingly the only ways to prevent theft.
‘Remote systems, often powering batteries, are stolen, no matter what precautions are taken,’ says Smith. ‘These include river monitoring equipment and road signs, and because they are in the countryside, it gives thieves more time to remove them without getting caught.’
As well as anti-theft fasteners, SolarInsure recommends using security lighting in the form of floodlights linked to motion sensors. Further options include building a reinforced concrete wall around the panel mountings, so preventing access to the supporting structure and its bolts. The only accessible part of the array is then the upper glass side of the PV modules and access for maintenance is via a door in the wall.
Mounting panels on high poles is another common solution, giving more flexibility to add or remove panels as required compared to a fixed wall. Beyond these passive physical deterrents, more sophisticated alarm systems can be put in place to actively alert the appropriate staff or authorities to the presence of burglars.
Connecting wires to each panel in an array to form simple electrical loops is one solution used in both remote and urban installations. When the cables are cut during a robbery, the current in the loops drops to zero. This change can be used to trip an alarm or trigger a message via a mobile transmitter, so giving the signal for security intervention by police or others.
Many vendors in different industries use this type of technology, but GridLock Solar Security has developed its own solar-specific packaged solution. This can manage five separate cable loops, meaning that each unit can protect from 50 to 100 kW of solar modules and a security lockout key allows only authorised personnel to disable and access the alarm system while a tamper-resistant access panel protects the control system.
Auxiliary control relays allow for the operation of external devices such as cameras, video and additional lighting, and a backup battery ensures that the system will operate even if grid power is absent. Using a 12 V supply is an option, as is using a PV power source; the vendor can supply a fitting kit that includes a PV module, charge controller, battery enclosure and pole mount.
California-based Tigo Energy has built security functions into its solar system management software that can send alerts to solar system owners when a panel is disconnected. A chip embedded in the panel communicates wirelessly with a central monitoring unit. If this communication is interrupted, the panel is automatically deactivated and the system sends out alerts. The deactivated panel cannot be brought online in another location without a special security code.
Another solution is to deploy an infra-red security barrier around the installation. This again can trigger alarms, lights or a mobile transmitter – and has the advantage of tripping before the thieves start to dismantle the modules. A disadvantage is that stray animals or windblown debris can cause false alarms, so some sort of physical barrier outside the infra-red detectors is also required.
Security off the Grid
Off-grid installations in distant areas of undeveloped countries bring their own security challenges.
Many industries make use of solar panels’ ruggedness and dependability to power off-grid systems, while rural electrification and solar water pumping in Africa and other less developed regions depend on smaller PV systems to serve isolated villages.
Phaesun’s work in remote parts of Eritrea is a good example of this type of remote installation. Built to supply power for community water pumping, theft is not generally a big problem. Solar technology is not yet well known and used, while communities in remote Eritrean villages hold fast to their traditional culture which proscribes theft.
In these instances, it follows that involving the local community is the best way to prevent theft and vandalism, according to a recent study by the Alliance for Rural Electrification. Bringing all the stakeholders together is fundamental to any sustainable, successful and secure solar installation in a remote location where they can – crucially – enforce the rules and prevent vandalism and other damage.
According to Géraldine Quelle, head of marketing at Phaesun, the first step to protecting a remote installation should simply be a solid fence with a lockable gate, and a watchman if available. ‘This stops easy penetration of the site by people and animals,’ she says. The next step is to secure the modules to their support structures and, in turn, to the concrete foundation using anti-theft fasteners.
‘Special anti-theft screws are being used to protect our solar installations from theft and vandalism,’ says Russom Semere, head of Phaesun’s technical department. ‘Dozens of such installations exist in Eritrea, and no theft has been reported as yet, except some breakage of modules due to children throwing stones while playing around.’
Installations in the two industrial markets of telecoms and oil and gas tend to be rather more vulnerable. Oil wells and pipelines are in some of the most isolated environments on the globe while telecoms operators increasingly look to PV generation rather than diesel power to supply the electricity required by telecommunications infrastructure in far-flung off-grid locations.
The solar system itself provides the final key to security: electricity from the panels powers surveillance equipment and remote monitoring tools. Such devices ensure system operators can keep an eye on systems no matter where they are.
‘We can remotely monitor power output and efficiency via an online link,’ says Rolland. ‘Cameras take their power from the solar panels and, via the internet, we can view the video images at any location.’
Telecoms giant Orange runs one of the largest PV programmes for telecommunications use across Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Tenesol recently launched S-TE Sun Guard, a secure solar support structure intended to deter theft in rural locations and off-grid sites. It employs self-destructing bolts, welded U-frames, stainless steel links and concrete settings to ensure its PV systems are among the most secure in the world. The structure can be linked to a remote monitoring system that warns operators when a panel has been tampered with. In addition, fencing and surveillance equipment powered by the PV system can be used as an added deterrent.
‘Protecting investment in solar power means protecting solar systems,’ says Rolland. ‘We want our customers’ investments to be as secure as possible – both in terms of the physical system and its productivity. Tenesol guarantees the performance of its modules and now we have used our experience and innovation to offer strong guarantees on the security of our modules.’
The S-TE Sun Guard system is designed to remain intact for more than 25 years and panels can only be removed by cutting them out of the structure.
Up to six PV modules are welded into stainless steel U-frames. Each module is then individually secured using security bolts. Modules are held together by steel links, which also use self-destructing bolts, and which are wrapped in concrete. The entire structure is then fixed in place with steel feet secured in concrete.
Re-use, Recycle, Re-sell?
One puzzling question is: where do all these panels end up? In less developed countries, light or non-existent regulation makes resale simple while, in the UK at least, selling stolen panels is more of a challenge for criminals.
‘The use of secondhand equipment is outlawed by the feed-in tariff (FiT) process,’ says Ray Noble, specialist PV consultant at the UK’s Solar Trade Association. ‘You have to show an invoice for the installation and so theft may not become a major problem here. Of course, with module prices continuing to drop rapidly, the value to the thieves is also reducing.’
As well as using unique security chips in modules as Tigo Energy proposes, individually marking panels is another way to discourage re-use. For example, Phaesun gives its customers the option of etching their own unique identifier on their panels, typically by sand blasting an image.
In 2009, Napa Valley congressman Mike Thompson added a provision to the Solar Technology Roadmap Act that would create a national registry for solar panel serial numbers to deter theft. The bill passed in the House of Representatives but never became law.
Possibly as a result, in the US there is a growing black market for solar panels with California the centre of the illegal trade. The state also has the highest number of installed solar power systems in the country to date.
‘Some of the panels end up on Craigslist, ebay and other web sites where they are resold,’ says Smith. ‘Sometimes we are able to track the panels via model and serial numbers and notify local police departments. If they are sold outside the state or country, that would make them more difficult to track.’
Most of the panels stolen in California are also in remote areas, with vineyards a prime target for example. Typically drug addicts and marijuana growers have been blamed for the crimes.
According to reports by the San Francisco Business Times, police in the wine-growing region of California’s Napa Valley think that marijuana growers might be stealing the panels for their own use, so the electricity required to grow large quantities of marijuana inside a home or building wouldn’t be detected. Elsewhere in the US, police have conducted sting operations, posing as buyers of secondhand panels and then arresting the seller if the goods appear to have been stolen.
As PV installations continue to proliferate, the opportunities for theft can only rise. By combining secure mounting systems with sophisticated alarms and coming up with ways to individually and permanently identify modules or even disable stolen ones, manufacturers are responding by giving their customers the best possible chance to win the fight against solar crime.