Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The dark side of sunshine: a unique and relatively new crime wave hasbeen targeting solar panels and their black market profits.(Fore front).

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Most companies have at least considered adopting alternative energy solutions. More than just having an environmental conscience, many businesses have found it simply profitable to add a few wind turbines on site or install a few solar panels on the roof. It is easy and cost-effective. For those who have opted for solar, however, there is a growing threat to receiving any long-term energy cost savings: theft.

Increasingly, businesses are reporting stolen solar panels. There are no empirical numbers to show the rise, but both law enforcement officials and those in the solar sector have been seeing more and more theft reports over the past two years. California, with its legislative mandates and incentives for alternative energy use, has experienced an increase in incidents, and wineries in Napa Valley have been hit particularly hard.

Vineyard proprietors have high energy demands and local culture and politics pushed many to become early solar adopters. Few wineries have experience as major crime targets, however, so they remain relatively vulnerable. They often have little security at night, and many smaller vineyards might not have anyone on premises after their primary growing season ends. At least 10 wineries in the region have reported panels stolen off their roofs of nearby ground arrays, which became common since spare acreage is easier to come by than vacant roof space for many.

ZD Wines, which has ground-mounted panels located far away from its main operations, was one winery struck by thieves on multiple occasions. "In November, we are not regularly in the vineyard, so we didn't even notice the theft until several weeks after it happened," said ZD Wines president Brett De Leuze in an interview with Wine Spectator. "The first time they took 200 of our 700 panels, and the second time, 44."

Some locals who have been hit suspect that drug traffickers are to blame. Like the grape growers throughout Northern California, the local marijuana growers in the region need a lot of energy to grow their crops. And even if they are not stealing them for personal use, their ties to the underground market draw suspicion.

This is just local speculation, however. Law enforcement officials lack the evidence to widely identify black market purchasers, but many suspect that unscrupulous local solar installers are main recipients as well as those in a growing underground trade in Mexico. The online world is also becoming rife with pilfered panels that often pop up on eBay or Craigslist.

Given the immaturity of the black market for solar panels, experts remain unsure as to the amount thieves are actually making. But with panels that generally retail for around $1,000 a piece, law enforcement officials estimate that bandits are making at least a few hundred dollars per panel. Using those who made off with ZD Wines' 200 panels as an example, it is easy to see why thieves would be enticed by the relative ease of pulling in tens of thousands of dollars for a night or two of work.

By and large, insurance will cover the costs of stolen solar panels. But California's Pleasanton School District, where solar thieves have hit four schools on five different occasions and made off with at least 100 panels in total, has had to pay out $25,000 in deductibles. Not only that, but until the claims are complete and the panels are reinstalled, the district is missing out on the energy savings that likely made local taxpayers supportive of the initiative in the first place. In a state where a new report seems to come out daily about another public budget shortfall, reporting a $25,000 loss on the solar program could not have been easy to swallow.

Security solutions specific to solar panels are available, with even more options forthcoming. Alarms that notify police when panels are detached can be installed. And bolt fastening and locking mechanisms tailored to roof-mounted systems can be added without too much difficultly.

Still, for a technology whose savings are based on long-term use and whose main deterrent to adoption is the fact that the initial investment is cost-prohibitive and complicated, adding additional layers of complexity--and, perhaps more importantly, concern--is likely to be off-putting to any business owners leery of the idea. Ultimately then, it seems as if the best solution to combating solar panel theft might be the exact same solution that critics say is necessary to get more people to adopt the technology in the first place: figure out a way to make them cheaper.

Source Citation
Wade, Jared. "The dark side of sunshine: a unique and relatively new crime wave has been targeting solar panels and their black market profits." Risk Management 56.10 (2009): 13. Academic OneFile. Web. 26 Jan. 2010. .

Gale Document Number:A213224520

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