Solar panels are new hot property for thieves

Dan Glaister in Los Angeles
Friday, September 26 2008

Glenda Hoffman has an answer for the thieves, should they choose to return to her home in Desert Hot Springs, California. "I have a shotgun right next to the bed and a .22 under my pillow."

Hoffman was the victim of a theft that one industry professional has dubbed "the crime of the future". Another observer has come up with the term "grand theft solar" to describe the spate of recent burglaries in sunny California.

In May Hoffman lost 16 solar panels from her roof in three separate burglaries, one while she slept below. Happily for Hoffman her insurers have agreed to pay the $95,000 (48,000) cost of replacing the panels. But as energy prices soar, and solar power takes off - at least in California - so opportunistic thieves have turned to the lucrative, and complicated, business of dismantling solar panels.

"I wouldn't say it's pervasive, but it's going on," California Solar Energy Industries Association executive director Sue Kateley told the Valley Times.
California is the leader for solar installations, with 33,000 across the state. Unsurprisingly, it is also the market leader for thefts of solar installations, although figures are hard to come by.

"The solar panel thing is pretty new," said Contra Costa county sheriff's office spokesman Jimmy Lee. "We're seeing an increasing number of cases."
One night in late August, 26 solar panels with a value of $20,000 were stolen from California's first certified organic farm, Star Route Farms in Bolinas, 20 miles up the coast from San Francisco.

"It's probably easier to steal a $20,000 car," Rob Erlichman, president of Sunlight Electric, which sold the panels to the farm in 2006, told the Point Reyes Light. "To steal that many panels you need a truck and you need guys."

A few miles inland, in Lafayette, a truck and some guys is just what the thieves had. A resident came home during the day to find three men on the roof of his house and five of his solar panels in the back of a rented truck. The men fled, leaving behind the truck and the panels.

Ken Martin, who runs a real estate company in Santa Rosa, California, found one day this spring that thieves had removed 58 panels with a value of $75,000 from an office building he owns. His proposed solution is to paint his solar panels bright pink. "At least if someone comes across them and they're painted, they'll know that's my colour," he said.

Law enforcement and the solar industry suggest other approaches to crime prevention.

Many companies now sell secure fastenings for solar panels, while some police departments are urging solar power users to inscribe their driving licence number on the panels.

But some warn that the thieves are too sophisticated to be troubled by such primitive deterrents. Tom McCalmont, who runs Regrid Power in Campbell, close to California's Silicon Valley, said that the sophistication shown by thieves suggests that industry insiders are behind many of the thefts, a suspicion bolstered by supply difficulties with new solar panels.
McCalmont has experience of solar panel thefts: his own company lost $30,000-worth of panels to burglars this summer. "They knew which wires to cut, which not to cut," he said. "This showed a level of expertise that indicated that whoever did it was from the solar industry."

Solar panels are new hot property for thieves | Environment | The Guardian