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‘Solar theft’ – why is it on the rise and how can farms protect themselves?

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Energy Global,

Just as with the construction and metals industries, agricultural sites – specifically farms – are gold mines for criminal gangs looking to make cash. They further battle with the fact that they are located in wide, open spaces, further removed from law enforcement.

The financial cost of crime to the agricultural industry was brought into sharp focus last year with NFU Mutual’s 2023 Rural Crime Report, estimating that £49.5 million worth of equipment was stolen and resold. That is up from £40.5 million the previous year.

Not only is the rate of theft rising, but they are also becoming ever more sophisticated. In June this year, a farmer who had £70 000 worth of high-tech equipment stolen believes a gang spied on his premises with a drone. He said the thieves, who were caught on CCTV, knew the machines' precise location and how to gain access.

There are established illicit global markets for farming and technology equipment, where criminals can sell their stolen wares for much higher prices. This specific spate of theft has been triggered by soaring values – particularly in relation to metals and machinery – and the low supply of farm machinery worldwide.

And alongside machinery, recent figures from the UK police suggest criminals have set their sights on another lucrative opportunity – solar panels.

Solar is currently only a small part of the UK's energy mix, but its share is growing, with estimates from Solar Energy UK suggesting the total solar capacity stands at 15 GW. There are currently just a little over 1000 solar farms in operation, which provide clean energy to the grid, many of which are owned by farmers themselves, making use of their outdoor space.

Unfortunately, what should be a virtuous initiative is giving rise to a new crime wave, with police data showing a staggering 48% rise in solar panel and cabling theft from 2021 to 2022. By way of example, in August, solar panels worth approximately £10 500 were stolen from an energy farm in Northamptonshire. Solar panel theft is not limited to large scale and commercial solar farms either – homes in remote areas are also vulnerable, with thieves reportedly swiping panels from people’s roofs.

Why? One reason is that solar panels include a number of valuable materials, like copper cabling, which is currently very expensive and is, as always, in strong demand. Ironically, the demand comes in part from the renewables sector itself. Copper has one of the highest thermal and electrical conductivity of all metals and is needed by commercial, industrial and utility sectors seeking alternative energy sources (sun and wind) to generate power. So, it is worth a pretty penny.

It is quicker, easier, and more discreet to grab a few panels than it is to shift reams of copper piping. So how can we stop this from happening? Energy farms house billions of pounds worth of equipment and are exposed and vulnerable. The need for security is increasingly evident.

Protecting a site of this kind is not easy. But capturing criminals in the act is a lot harder than preventing them from getting in in the first place – especially in rural areas. The focus, therefore, has to be on deterrence.

A well-lit site will illuminate dark corners where trespassers might go unnoticed, preventing them from taking risks. Visible measures, such as CCTV towers and temporary fencing work, will also help prevent would-be thieves from taking their chances.

A solar-powered BauWatch CCTV camera overseeing a solar farm in Cuenca, Spain.

The idea is to make criminals think someone is always there, even when they are not.

Rural theft has long been an issue in the UK. It is a sinister practice, with repercussions that are as much emotional, as they are commercial. After all, for a small farm, solar panels are a huge investment. Not only that, but if solar theft is not brought under control, it will delay the country from reaching its net zero goals. With nights growing darker earlier from October, the risk of theft increases, so action must be taken around this issue, and fast.

Written by Alexis Potter, Managing Director at site security specialist, BauWatch UK.


For more news and technical articles from the global renewable industry, read the latest issue of Energy Global magazine.

Energy Global's Autumn 2023 issue

The Autumn 2023 issue of Energy Global hosts an array of technical articles focusing on green hydrogen, wind installation technology, blade monitoring solutions, and more. This issue also features a regional report looking at some key renewables projects in Australia.

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