Security and Theft Prevention

As the installed capacity of PV has grown, so too have incidents of theft and vandalism.
But how large a problem is it?
What are thieves targeting?
Where are thefts occurring?
And what can installers do about it?

No matter what level of security a site has, it is nearly impossible to prove that the security system is truly preventing theft. Unfortunately, what we get instead is the proof that security is not working when modules, conductors or equipment are stolen.

In this article, we address security measures ranging from nuts-and-bolts solutions to sophisticated alarm systems, as well as practical security strategies for PV systems and jobsites of all sizes.

TARGETED FOR THEFT

Theft happens during construction as well as after PV systems have gone online. Many thefts are perpetrated by insiders with some knowledge of what is on-site, how it is installed and what security measures are in place. And, of course, outsiders make off with their share of equipment as well.

Modules. When it comes to PV systems, modules seem like they would be the obvious target. However, according to the NPD Solarbuzz Retail Module Price Index, December 2001 to March 2012, average retail prices for PV modules in 2012 are less than half of what they were 10 years ago. This dramatic decrease in module prices, coupled with the increase in physical size and commensurate difficulty in handling today’s modules, means that module thefts are not as common as one would think, nor as common as they used to be when 75 W modules cost $5.50 a watt. Of course, remote systems—whether an off-grid house, telecom site or temporary traffic sign—and systems located in the developing world are more likely targets for module theft than residential, commercial or utility-scale grid-tied systems. In extreme cases, protecting remote systems can be accomplished only with on-site security personnel.

According to Mike Smith, an agent and broker at Solar-Insure, a California company that offers insurance for renewable energy assets, PV systems in rural areas, such as wineries, and on schools are the most common targets. Smith notes, “Since 2008, the rate of PV system thefts is increasing about 16% year over year, on average, as demonstrated by an increase in insurance claims.” Because not all thefts result in insurance claims, it is likely that this number understates the actual increase.

Even PV systems in public places can be targets. For example, 30 PV modules were stolen from the roof of a community building in Colorado, directly adjacent to the local police station. (See photo below)

Because of rebate program requirements that equipment must be new, it is difficult to recycle stolen modules in gridtied applications. More common end uses for stolen modules include off-grid homes, marijuana-growing operations and the RV market, where the purchaser may not be aware that the modules were stolen. Many times the thieves plan on using the modules rather than selling them. Browsing Craigslist and eBay shows that relatively few used—meaning potentially stolen—PV modules are listed for sale.

Metal. According to the Copper Development Association, building wiring comprised the largest US market for copper in 2010; power utilities were the third largest market. Electrical substations and construction sites where wire is stored are common targets. A report published by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, covering the years 2009 through 2011, notes:

  • Metal theft insurance claims increased by 81%.
  • Copper is the metal most commonly stolen.
  • The states with the highest incidence of metal theft claims are Ohio, Texas, Georgia, California and Illinois.

As illustrated in Figure 1a, the spot price of copper has ranged from $1.25 to $4.50 per pound over the past 5 years, with an average price of around $3. In 2011, copper was selling for about four times the December 2008 price. Over the same 5-year period, aluminum ranged from $0.60 to $1.40 per pound, with an average price around $1, as shown in Figure 1b. At 30% the price of copper, aluminum is less attractive to thieves.

Nearly every state has enacted laws regarding the sale of scrap metal. Typical requirements are that scrap yards keep records of seller identification, such as license plate numbers and even fingerprints; make payment via check instead of cash; and hold the metal for a set period of time to allow law enforcement agencies to identify the material if a theft has been reported. Unfortunately, unscrupulous scrap metal dealers still find ways to circumvent these measures, and organized rings of thieves may have their own means of fencing stolen materials.

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