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Solar eclipse: Addressing the rise of solar infrastructure theft in South Africa!

It’s been more than a year since South Africa had a full week without Loadshedding. Let that sink in. 365 days of interrupted power, cold suppers, and cold showers! Naturally, those who can afford to invest in solar infrastructure do so. The investment in shiny new tech is starting to be noticed by criminal elements. So what is causing the rise in solar-related products, and what can be done to prevent the solar crime-eclipse from engulfing the country?


Claims:


We have noticed an increase in articles about Loadshedding and the double-impact consequences of increased reliance on solar power generation, and increased targeting of these systems! So we thought to highlight some of the claims to better understand the issue at hand, and highlight ways preventative security measures can address this emerging trend.


In an article by IOL, they mentioned how Auto & General CEO Ricardo Coetzee described solar panel theft as “an emerging trend, one that we are keeping an eye on”, and highlighted how their claims data comparing January 2022 and January 2023 showed a 40% increase in burglaries during load shedding. [https://www.iol.co.za/weekend-argus/news/surge-in-solar-panel-theft-during-load-shedding-7995c303-016c-403c-9f46-1806d5431661 ].


Several articles by BusinessTech have broken down the problem into a few main points:

  • Solar panels are generally a big and visible target:

They describe how in their words it is an “incredibly easy process for criminals to steal panels and batteries” and that there is a massive emerging black market for solar panels, “akin to the copper cable black market” [https://businesstech.co.za/news/energy/710210/how-criminals-are-stealing-solar-panels-in-south-africa/].


The visibility from the street can essentially paint a property as a target, especially if the property is the only one in the area with solar infrastructure, or if their security measures are lacking.

  • They are easy to steal:

In another article, forensic investigator Calvin Rafadi said that “solar panel theft was growing as the parts were easy to remove” as they can often be simply unscrewed with a screwdriver.


This is like having a high value item like a television mounted to your roof with only a few screws securing it!

  • They are hard to track:

The articles also note an important fact, unlike other hot assets such as vehicles and generators, solar panels do not tend to have identification markings such as serial numbers! This makes them unbelievably hard to track and easy to re-sell on the black market!

  • They can be sold for parts:

The components of the panels and batteries etc. themselves can be flogged as well as the panels! Devices containing silver, aluminium, and copper are commodities with deeply entrenched black market trading networks. [https://businesstech.co.za/news/lifestyle/706890/criminals-are-targetting-solar-in-south-africa-security-expert-warns/]


This means that once your panel is removed from your property, it’s as good as scrap essentially. Some of the anti-theft measures (discussed later) preventing re-sale can become ineffective if the panels are sold as parts.

  • Cannibalism in the solar installation market:

While these claims may be unsubstantiated, numerous insurers suspected that it was some of the companies that had installed the solar systems that were the ones involved with the theft of the panels.


Collusion is an age-old problem anywhere high-value trade takes place.


What are the “proactive” security solutions mentioned?


Some of the ‘proactive’ measures mentioned are more reactionary in nature. The articles discuss measures such as micro-dotting and installing hidden transmitters that cannot be blocked from emitting frequencies. The problem here comes when the devices are sold for parts. These measures may actually hinder the tracking and tracing of solar panels as the panels may be quickly dismantled for fear of these measures. The component parts may also be quicker and easier to sell as each part has its own trade channels.


A few good preventative measures proposed by the article include “using smart technology, which can detect if someone is on your roof or near panels”, and “thoroughly [checking] the credentials of solar installers” to confirm the staff are cleared by SAPS, and to help establish a chain of connectivity to the installation of the panels.


How we address the issues:


When it comes to the installation of any technology on your site, we suggest breaking down the preventative security measures into three stages: security before, during, and after installation. Part of our Managed Services offering addresses consultation and guidance through these steps to ensure multiple failsafe measures are thought of and initiated from day one.



Before installation:

  • Company employee vetting and background checks:

One of the services we offer that can help prevent issues from even landing on your doorstep is proper vetting of the Solar Installation service provider you select. We can do full background testing on every member of staff to assess any previous criminal activities or known connections, as well as License Plate Recognition (LPR) on the vehicles involved. While this step may seem unnecessary, this may in fact be the most important preventative security measure you perform. A good rule of thumb is if a company you want to hire refuses to do this step, avoid them. We are fully POPIA compliant, so any information recorded by us through this process will be scrubbed and deleted accordingly when the job is complete.

  • Consultation and guidance:

With any property, small residential to a large corporate office, when installing new technology (especially expensive and targeted tech), it is advisable to have the state of your site’s security checked. We perform site tests as well as assessments to ensure you are adequately covered, and that any security hardware or software you need is appropriate for your site and budget.


During:

  • Preventative measures:

Depending on the size of your property and the scope of the installation process at hand, your site may have incomplete installations for a number of days during the process. We can guide you on temporary measures you can establish to provide uninterrupted power to your security system until your solar battery backup system is operational and tested. We can also manage any on-site security you have during this time to ensure your site has a backup provider watching over it. This prevents collusion or opportunistic threats.

  • Testing of alarm systems etc.

With any new power systems, device configurations may be interrupted or change, and system oversights may happen. Sometimes installation partners are so specialised and focused on their field of knowledge, that they do not ask questions about your security system beyond ensuring it has power. Please, this is important for existing clients or anyone reading this article, speak with your security provider whenever you change any infrastructure and please re-test your system after changes and at least every 4-6 months.

  • Compliance and fire/safety assessment.

With on-site battery backup systems and complex wiring, mishaps can happen. Sometimes devices hammered by the surges of past energy provisions may be vulnerable to damage. For these reasons (and so many more), it is advisable that your site has a fire/ safety compliance check performed after new technology is installed.


After:

  • Perimeter monitoring:

Congratulations on your successful solar backup installation. Now you have all the power you need to run kick-ass perimeter monitoring solutions to ensure that any hour, day or night, opportunistic criminals stay away from your solar infrastructure. In the articles mentioned, some of their ‘preventative’ measures were too little too late. Utilising virtual-boundary perimeter monitoring technology allows you to be alerted whenever anyone crosses the invisible Artificial Intelligence monitored line running along your site’s perimeter. These measures give you and SAPS the time to intercept the intruders before they even reach your solar panels.

  • IoT with disconnect alarms etc.

Should your perimeter monitoring measures fail to detect, or suffer a power failure in spite of your backup systems, or if your site does not have CCTV cameras capable of this, we are able to monitor some IoT devices/systems specifically focussed on device disconnects, under-voltage for panel performance and to alert when voltage drops below a certain threshold. As mentioned above, these measures give you time to assess the situation and time for on-site security or SAPS to address the intrusion.


Conclusion:


Once the panels and batteries are out of your property, there’s a slim chance of recovery. So how do we stop the solar eclipse of South Africa’s solar infrastructure? Know who is installing your devices, know your own security system, and know an independent off-site monitoring company has your back through the entire process. Also, don’t skimp on security, if your property is the only site with power during loadshedding, sticking out like a sore thumb is an understatement! So get in touch if you are thinking of getting solar infrastructure installed, we’re more than happy to help give you real peace of mind!

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