Growing Black Market for Solar Panels

We were surprised to learn that there’s a growing black market for solar panels – people are stealing them from solar farms and re-selling them.

That’s because they are easy to steal and hard to track. In fact, a German utility, Stadtwerke Senftenberg GmbH, now marks its panels and inverters with artificial DNA so they can be traced. Some solar parks now have security patrols.

In Europe, Germany seems to be the main target right now, where stolen solar panels can quickly be sold to people in nearby Eastern European countries, where new feed-in laws are creating strong demand, reports Bloomberg. Spain and Italy had the same problem until they tightened security. 

Large solar plants are the main targets according to police. Thieves have raided solar parks in Germany 14 times this year, taking tons of solar panels, says Bloomberg. They were tied down with "thief-proof" screws but that didn’t stop them. They also steal inverters.

"For developers of large-scale plants, there is some risk of being targeted
by professional thieves with secured sales channels, the expertise to dismantle
equipment without damaging it and heavy trucks to carry it away," says Jenny
Chase at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Aside from
plant downtime, "the biggest loss may well be the cost of work for installing
the new equipment, which is likely to be cheaper than the original."

The most likely time for thefts is right after a solar farm is finished, before alarm and video  surveillance technology is installed.

Artificial DNA

The "artificial DNA" is a liquid that contains a unique code. After it is applied to a product it’s very hard to remove and can’t be seen by the naked eye. Police can see the code using ultraviolet light. 

Once they are marked with DNA, they are much more difficult to sell and therefore less attractive to thieves, says Bloomberg. 

How much does it cost to apply DNA to a large solar plant? Apparently, it’s cheaper than installing video surveillance.

Police made four arrests this year and 16 last year and police estimate the value of losses at about $2.6 million to date, says Bloomberg.

We did a search on this topic and found that solar panel theft was a big problem in 2008-2009 in the US, but haven’t seen reports since then. They were being stolen from peoples’ rooftops and from isolated solar arrays, such as in remote areas of wineries.

Solar panels stolen

"Our solar panels are ground-mounted at the far end of our vineyard. And in November, we are not regularly in the vineyard, so we didn’t even notice the theft until several weeks after it happened. The first time they took 200 of our 700 panels, and the second time, 44," Brett de Leuze, president of ZD Wines, told the Wine Spectator.

"It takes some know-how to remove solar panels without damaging them, but savvy  thieves are learning fast. They’re even taking advantage of technological  advancements, such as Google Earth, to pinpoint solar-clad properties, especially in remote areas where their actions are likely to go unseen. Stolen solar panels are winding up on eBay and Craigslist where unwitting customers  quickly buy them up, making themselves complicit in the crime. Schools and churches, generally unoccupied at night, have been hit hard by this brand of theft theft, but no buildings are especially immune," says Nick Gromicko of International Association of Certified Home Inspectors.   

In one case, someone put an ad for solar panels for $100 each on eBay. Detectives placed bids and bought the panels, and arrested the man when he tried to complete the transaction. The panels were worth $1500 each.

Many insurance policies will cover solar theft, but as they grow, that could change. Suggestions for protecting solar array range from installing alarms and motion detectors to chaining them together and using sturdy locks or even a surveillance camera. 

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