How criminals are stealing solar panels in South Africa

 ·10 Aug 2023

Security experts warn that solar equipment theft is rising in South Africa, with it being an incredibly easy process for criminals to steal panels and batteries.

Amidst the energy crisis, many South Africans have decided to install solar systems to lessen their dependence on Eskom.

However, the plan to escape the embattled power utility has also led to a new crime trend, with solar panels and other related equipment now a hot target for thieves.

This has also created a massive black market for solar panels, akin to the copper cable black market, experts warn.

“The stats aren’t out yet – and this will likely be released by insurance companies – but from our experience, solar equipment theft has increased dramatically over the past months, fueled by the continual high stages of load shedding South Africans face daily,” said Rodney Taylor, managing director of Guardian Eye, a company involved in remote security and home automation..

“These solar panels and batteries are of very high value, as their components themselves – being silver, aluminium, and copper – are already valuable apart from their ability to generate power. So they have a high resale value.”

Taylor noted that solar equipment is also popular amongst criminals as it is very easy to steal and, unlike vehicles and generators, solar panels and batteries are easy to remove and transport undetected.

How they are stolen

Speaking to the Mail and Guardian, forensic investigator Calvin Rafadi said that solar panel theft was growing as the parts were easy to remove.

“Criminals use a spanner to unscrew the panels. They usually wait for the targeted house owners to be out during the night and come with the ladder and remove the panels to sell on the black market,” Rafadi said.

“The thieves have enough time to dismantle the system before leaving the property,” Fidelity Services Group head of communications Charnel Hattingh added.

Rafadi added that criminals often come dressed in work suits and look like they are coming to maintain the panels when they are stealing them.

“It is wise for those that own the panels to alert their neighbours when they are not around to keep an eye out for them and alert the police of suspicious activity,” he said.

In addition, numerous insurers told the paper that they suspected that companies that had installed the solar systems were the ones to steal the panels.

What can be done

Unfortunately, with load shedding looking to be a permanent fixture in South Africa for the foreseeable future, it is likely that solar theft will continue to be a problem.

However, several experts said that there are proactive steps that solar owners can follow to not become a victim of solar crime.

“We are now being contracted to secure the solar and battery units with a composite material that is patented and trademarked in South Africa, which prevents the assets from being removed. This has proven to reduce the theft of these assets,” Taylor said.

Many households and businesses are also microdotting the panels and installing hidden transmitters that cannot be blocked by radio frequencies.

He added that using smart technology, which can detect if someone is on your roof or near panels, is a good preventive measure.

Rafadi also said that South Africans can invest in neighbourhood watch groups, whilst Hattingh said that homeowners should keep their gardens well-lit and have proper barrier security installed.

Additionally, several insurance companies said that customers should insure their panels and upgrade their overall insurance coverage to avoid being underinsured during a claim.

Santam manager Marius Steyn added that homeowners should thoroughly check the credentials of solar installers, including references and how long the company has been operating, to confirm that they are not thieves.

Read: South Africa’s R160 billion renewable plan hits a roadblock

Show comments
Subscribe to our daily newsletter