With the price of copper rising, inflation increasing the cost of living and organized crime gangs increasing their activity in the UK and across Europe, solar project owners need to be more security conscious than ever.
When British police visited an address in Staffordshire suspected of storing solar panels from the Worcestershire site in 2019, they found not only 13 modules but also papers detailing planned shipments to Madrid for resale. The international disposal route linked to the raid – at a solar farm owned by water company Severn Trent near Kidderminster in western England – pointed to the involvement of organized crime.
Police in the UK found a 93 per cent increase in reports of solar-related crime from 2021 to 2022. This figure – reported by criminologist James Taylor, head of the UK’s serious organized procurement crime unit Opal – included an increase in petty theft. solar panels as a growing energy bill and cost of living crisis.
And the UK experience is far from unique. The German solar protection company Viamon says pv magazine that more than 5,000 “big” solar thefts take place in Europe every year, of which more than 400 in Germany alone. Viamon CEO Oliver Strecke says that solar crime in southern Italy is 10 times higher than the European average.
Speaking at the Solar Crime Open Day, organized by site security company DeterTech and London asset manager Schroders, Taylor reported a 48% increase in cabling and solar panel thefts from solar sites between 2021 and 2022.
Speakers at the event in Telford, western England, urged solar farm owners to report any criminal damage, no matter how small. Taylor said that 574,300 pounds ($691,500) worth of property was stolen from solar installations in the UK last year, but noted that the actual figure is likely to be higher.
Strecke says European solar theft typically causes 60,000 euros ($63,900) in damage when repairs and lost business are factored in.
“Solar crime is increasing,” says Rachael Oakley, head of crime intelligence at Telford-based DeterTech, formally known as SmartWater Group for its product labeling technology. “Cables are usually copper and are aimed at scrap value. The price of copper is on the rise again, making it more attractive to criminals. Criminals start observing solar facilities and know that the cables contain copper and solar panels.
Copper hit a record high of £7,500 a tonne in February, according to Richie Iwanoff, head of British Telecom’s crime team. The price is expected to rise above £10,000 a tonne within a year, he said at the Telford event. Cable theft is big business in Europe as well, as Strecke reports that organized gangs can strip more than 30 kilometers of copper in a five-hour night.
“We’ve had cases where nine entire substations have been dismantled and the copper removed,” he says.
Oakley says pv magazine that organized criminal groups plan their crimes like a business. “They have a very clear idea of what they’re going to steal, they often have a ‘recce’ (reconnaissance visit) to see entry points, they know what tools they’re going to use and how they’re going to get in and out of the site in a hurry. They also have a disposal route planned.”
Stolen Severn Trent panels found in Newcastle-under-Lyme were marked with DeterTech’s SmartWater product – invisible to the naked eye rare earth chemicals that glow green under UV light. Each batch of SmartWater has a unique chemical signature that allows DeterTech to identify where it has been installed. The company claims it received a 100% conviction on the SmartWater charges. DeterTech, which also offers remotely monitored CCTV cameras and products to warn potential intruders, has nearly 1 GW of solar power generation capacity under protection.
Viamon’s Strecke says organized riders typically remove 100 panels to 300 solar panels — 10 tons worth at the high end. In one case, he adds, thieves removed more than 15,000 panels — 5 MW of generating capacity — in one weekend. “It’s organized crime with big logistics behind it,” he says.
Oakley says criminals sell cables through scrap dealers. “Others granulate it,” he adds, referring to the removal of shell material to reach the copper. Taylor said thieves in the UK have been using on-site granulators.
Trade body Solar Energy UK confirms the picture, with Taylor and Oakley stressing that even minor incidents need to be reported by site operators to help police build a bigger picture of solar crime. A small thread break can indicate a criminal case. “Small, minor criminal damage needs to be reported,” Taylor said. “We know that 61 percent of solar (crime) victims are then repeat victims, either themselves or somewhere within a five-mile radius.” Oakley, a former West Mercia Police intelligence analyst, said at the Telford event that “nothing is too small”.
UK police are investigating copper disposal routes, and the West Mercia force’s We Don’t Buy Crime initiative in England’s West Midlands includes a traffic light system that classifies scrap dealers as green, brown or red based on how likely police intelligence is to deal with stolen goods. “Their regulation is something that the police in the UK are trying to come to terms with and are struggling with through Home Office regulation,” Taylor says.
Wider distribution routes are a tougher nut to crack, as Strecke’s company has used sensors suitable for solar project equipment to trace equipment stolen from Northamptonshire, UK, to Nigeria two months later. “This is an international business and many traces lead to Eastern European gangs,” he adds.
The increase in organized crime raids has been accompanied by an increasing number of opportunistic thefts in the UK for resale.
“The cost of living crisis has made things worse, and rural crime has increased significantly,” says Oakley, of DeterTech, owned by Freshstream Investment Partners. “Historically, criminals targeting solar facilities have been organized. Recently, however, we have received more information that local criminals have also turned their hands to it.
“Now we see more opportunistic thieves down on their luck. Such thieves are more likely to dispose of items through a local junkyard, especially cable. Dealers shouldn’t sell anything without paperwork, but not every yard complies with this requirement.
“We know that solar panels are also appearing on online marketplaces. We are trying to educate the general market about buying used panels online. The message is don’t buy something if you don’t know where it came from, because most of the time it means it could have been stolen.”
“We know that some of the stolen property, the stolen panels, are also being sold quite brazenly and brazenly on social media,” Taylor said. “When you consider that there are 1.4 million solar panels in the domestic environment in the UK, and this is expected to quadruple in the next two to three years, the demand for and supply of stolen panels is also likely to increase.”
Given the UK’s economic outlook, he said this type of crime was either here to stay or likely to be. “Given the rural locations of some of the solar farms, it’s a high-paying and relatively low-risk crime,” he added.
Telford attendees heard that the counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire in the West Midlands are the UK’s hotspot for solar crime, followed by Nottinghamshire, Cambridgeshire and Kent.
None of the three police forces involved publish statistics pv magazine without a freedom of information request.