At least 14 times this year, thieves raided solar parks in Germany’s Brandenburg state, carrying off tons of photovoltaic panels in a crime that’s forcing investors in the world’s biggest solar market to tighten security.
“Even thief-proof screws didn’t stop them,” Christian Linder, of plant developer Athos Solar GmbH, said by telephone on June 3 after 130 panels on the outskirts of Berlin were detached from their foundations and carted off. “We have security staff patrolling the park now.”
Solar theft in the eastern state between Berlin and Poland has increased from 16 cases in all of 2008, the region’s police department said. In the south, authorities in Bavaria released recommendations to help protect its 9.6 gigawatts of installed capacity. That’s enough to power about 2.3 million homes in a nation that invested about $15 billion in solar gear in 2012.
The incidents highlight a growing trade in stolen solar equipment that’s easy to sell and difficult to track, compounding losses for insurers and prompting one German utility, Stadtwerke Senftenberg GmbH, to mark its panels with an artificial DNA technology to make them traceable. The units, typically the size of refrigerator doors or larger, are being resold in Eastern Europe, where subsidies set off a boom in demand, police say.
About 1.3 million solar plants are operating in Germany using modules from manufacturers including First Solar Inc., Trina Solar Ltd. and Solarworld AG. Germany was one of the first countries to kick-start its solar industry, offering a feed-in tariff guaranteeing above-market prices for solar power starting in 2004.
Developers added a record 22.3 gigawatts of panels from 2010 through last year amid falling prices as producers led by China’s Suntech Power Holdings Co. Ltd. expanded capacity.
While German installations are expected to decline this year, markets in Eastern Europe are surging after governments there backed above-market rates for power from renewable energy. Romania’s demand for panels will be six times larger this year than last, and Ukraine will expand by 25 percent, according to forecasts from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
“Mainly large solar plants are targeted,” said Peter Salender, a Brandenburg East police department spokesman. He said subsidies for renewable energy in Eastern Europe may provide an “incentive” for criminals from there to work in German states such as Saxony and Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania.
In years past, thieves targeted installations in Italy and Spain, which had a “serious” problem from 2007 to 2009 until plants operators tightened security, said Tomas Diaz, a spokesman for the country’s UNEF photovoltaic lobby group.
Investments of 11.2 billion euros ($14.7 billion) were made to add 7.6 gigawatts of panels last year, the BSW-Solar industry group said. It doesn’t compile data on solar-panel theft.
Mannheimer Versicherungen, a Mannheim-based insurer that insures solar plants, had two large cases in the past 12 months with damages totaling “six-figure sums,” Roland Koch, company spokesman, said by phone on June 3. The insurer is working with developers to ensure they have adequate security strategies in place, he said.
“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,” said Jenny Chase, who leads a team of five solar analysts at 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.”
It’s not just panels that are disappearing. Sometime from May 6 to May 7, about 54 inverters that convert solar power for use on the national electric grid were stolen from a 2.2-megawatt plant in Strausberg near Berlin, according to DESA Investigation and Risk Protection, a private security adviser and investigator based in Berlin.
The units on a guarded construction site were made by Refusol GmbH and weigh about 2,200 kilograms (4,800 pounds). Damages were at least 150,000 euros, DESA’s Klaus-Dieter Baier said May 31 by phone. Baerbel Cotte-Weiss, a spokeswoman for the police, confirmed the theft.
German insurance companies are “aware of the issue,” Kathrin Jarosch, a spokeswoman for the Berlin-based insurers’ lobby group GDV, said May 31. GDV has no statistics on solar panel theft.
“We’re experiencing an increase in theft at large-scale parks,” Baier said. “Theft often happens shortly before a park is finished, when alarm and video surveillance technology aren’t yet installed.”
While new modules and inverters for a 4-kilowatt rooftop unit cost about $4,100, thieves would have to resell them for less without the appropriate receipts, Chase said. Developers are responding by stepping up security they overlooked when the industry was young.
Stadtwerke Senftenberg GmbH, a Brandenburg municipal utility that has invested about 3.5 million euros ($5 million) in two solar plants, last month became the first plant operator to decide to mark its panels and inverters using so-called artificial DNA technology to make them traceable.
“We’re bordering eastern Europe, and it’s no secret that solar modules, and not just cars and machinery, are being increasingly targeted by thieves,” Detlef Moschke, the utility’s managing director, said May 30 by phone. “We want to discourage theft and make sure that our investment in solar energy pays off.”
The “artificial DNA” is a liquid applied to products that leaves a trace invisible to the eye, said Axel Matz, head of Spectrum Distribution, a Cottbus-based company selling technology developed by SDNA Forensic Marking.
The liquid, is very difficult to remove after it has hardened, contains a unique “DNA code” that police can see under ultraviolet light and link to the rightful owner through a database. Panel casings are also etched with a visible code, and warning signs in several languages are installed around the parks to discourage thieves, he said.
Marked panels are “very difficult to sell” and therefore less attractive to thieves,’’ he said.
Spectrum and SDNA, whose clients include utility Vattenfall Europe AG and German railway operator Deutsche Bahn AG, had about two dozen inquiries in May from German, Austrian, Swiss and Hungarian operators of solar plants for as many as 40,000 panels, Matz said. The company currently employs four workers and may hire 10 more to meet demand, he said.
Moschke declined to give details on how much the liquid DNA cost to outfit its 1-megawatt and 0.8-megawatt plants, saying only that it’s cheaper than installing video surveillance.
While Brandenberg police estimated the value of the thefts is about 2 million euros ($2.6 million) to date, the solar industry and its insurers are taking note of the trend and raising concerns. Police made four arrests this year, and 16 last year, Salender said.