Companies Find Ways to Guard Solar Panels as Solar Theft Rises

Like any other material item that comes with a price tag, solar panels can (and do) get stolen.With reports of solar panel theft coming out of countries as far awayas South Africa, Australia or Britain, it’s not a phenomenon particularto California, which has seen solar panels filched from buildingsranging from public schools to wineries and seems to be the main sourceof solar crime in the U.S. While solar theft is still new enough thatstatistics for it aren’t readily available, it has become enough of aconcern to owners and law enforcement officials that several companieshave developed various security measures to keep them locked down on the roof where they belong.

Detective Todd Hancock, a sheriff’s deputy in California, puts it this way: “It seems to be the theft du jour.”

While solar theft has been reportedly down over the past few months,thanks to softening demand for solar panels and lowered prices,authorities expect it to rise once the economy goes on the mend anddemand jumps back up. After all, it’s fairly easy to drive a truck upto a building, unload a few dozen panels and speed away.

“You’d be surprised,” says Mr. Hunt, of Heliotex [acompany that specializes in systems for cleaning solar panels].“Someone can back a truck that says Acme Solar up to a house and unloada roof in the middle of the day. It happens.”

The WSJ article linked above points to reports suggesting thrivingAmerican and Mexican black markets for solar panels, which typicallycost more than $1,000 new and can fetch a few hundred dollars resold. Atwo-person team of thieves can dismantle an entire roof of panels in acouple of hours and generally take 40 to 50 panels per job. Takers ofpilfered panels may include unscrupulous solar installers, as well asbuyers (unsuspecting or not) on eBay and Craigslist.

Small wonder, then, that companies are beginning to offer productsand services safeguarding against this kind of crime. In addition tooffering systems for washing solar panels, Heliotex alsosells customized stainless-steel bolts that are priced at around $5each and can’t be undone by ordinary screwdrivers or wrenches andrequire a special key (given to the installer) to come undone. CodeSource offerslaser-sketched bar codes and serial numbers, which make it impossiblefor thieves to remove the tracking or identification devices from anypanel they take. And for those who like to scare thieves pantless, Gridlock Solar Security sells security systems that emit a deafening siren the minute a panel wired to the system is disturbed.

Still, some experts believe that residential consumershave little need for expensive lockdowns. “In your averageneighborhood, if a truck pulled up and guys started pulling panels offyour roof, someone would see it,” says Tom McCalmont, CEO of RegridPower Inc., which installs solar systems in central and northernCalifornia. “The neighborhood-watch approach seems to work pretty well.”

It’s up to the owner, of course, to make the call. Panel owners canreduce the risk of theft by making sure no movable ladders are readilyavailable for thieves to use and by blocking access to exteriorladders. Any costlier measures, though—that’s up to you.

“People will spend a tremendous amount of mental effortfiguring out what kind of alarm to put in a $20,000 car, but they’llput a $100,000 solar array on the roof without giving it a secondthought,” says Stephen Clarke, an assistant vice president at ISO,which provides risk analysis for insurance firms.

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