Criminals are targetting solar in South Africa, security expert warns

 ·26 Jul 2023

As homeowners and businesses seek relief from Eskom’s load shedding through alternative power products, criminals are taking advantage of the solar boom – a trend that is now rife across the country.

Solar has become one of the most popular sources of relief for South Africans as load shedding continues to throttle economic activity and disrupt general day-to-day life in South Africa.

South African households have imported over R5 billion worth of home solar equipment over the past year, which is expected to increase significantly throughout 2023.

However, this booming trend to escape load shedding has also attracted scammers and criminals looking for opportunities to take advantage.

Speaking to eNCA, Rodney Taylor, managing director of Guardian Eye, a company involved in remote security and home automation, said solar is now firmly a hot target for thieves looking to make easy money.

“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.

“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,” he said.

Managing Director of Guardian Eye, Rodney Taylor.

He added that, along with its value, what makes solar equipment so popular among criminals is that it’s very easy to steal.

Unlike other hot assets on criminal lists in South Africa – such as vehicles and generators – solar panels and batteries are relatively easy to remove and transport under the radar.

“In the past, base stations where these batteries and panels where stored in large quantities where the targets, but now, with this booming trend to escape load shedding, these valuable assets are now readily available across homes and businesses – making them a much easier target,” Taylor said.

Additionally, these panels do not have identification markings such as serial numbers, which makes them incredibly easy to resell on the black market – so this is a massive advantage fueling this industry of solar theft.

Combatting the theft

Taylor noted that private security companies have to develop solutions to help households and businesses secure their solar assets.

“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,” he said.

“This has proven to reduce the theft of these assets,” Taylor noted.

He added that many households and businesses are having to microdot solar panels and install hidden transmitters that use a radio frequency that can’t be blocked to make it increasingly difficult to steal these assets.

“Guardian Eye and its ground units are also working very closely with the South African Police Service (SAPS) with regards to the micro dotting, so it’s a massive combined effort,” Taylor said.

He further noted that securing solar equipment and using smart technology is the best way to protect these high-value assets from theft, adding that some systems can even detect when someone is on your roof or near the panels before they do harm to your solar systems, which is a good preventative approach.

Vodacom hits back

While solar installations and batteries at private residences are now becoming a hot target for criminals, companies have been dealing with this type of crime for much longer.

Mobile network operators like Vodacom and MTN were some of the first to jump on load shedding mitigation efforts to secure their operations during outages.

As a result, base stations and their battery backups and generators have long been targets for criminals.

Vodacom said that it has been pushing back against criminals and secured a victory this week when it managed to recover 49 of its batteries that were stolen.

This was done through increased investment in security as well as exposing a major criminal operation in the process, it said.

“Battery theft has affected the entire industry,” said Johan van Graan, Chief Risk Officer at Vodacom.

“Criminals have targeted every link in the supply chain, right from manufacturers through to robbing towers. However, keeping our customers connected is a top priority so we have invested extensively in preventative measures, including partnering with top security companies and with communities.”

Last week one of Vodacom’s manufacturing partners, a factory in Kempton Park, fell victim to an armed robbery. Among the items stolen were over 700 batteries, 49 of which belonged to Vodacom.

The Vodacom security team and other security professionals succeeded in locating the stolen batteries in a warehouse near Musina, in Limpopo. Here the team retrieved all 49 batteries and returned these to the original warehouse.

Read: South Africa just hit a dark load shedding milestone

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