In Box

Grand Theft Solar

Grand Theft Solar

Lincoln Dahl, managing director of a company that markets alternative energies to African businesses, recently stepped into a used solar panel shop in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. He had come in to scope out his competition’s wares. A few of the shop’s solar panels looked stolen, still bearing the nameplates of their original owners. "Theft is a problem," Dahl says. "We find that to be a compliment — that means that there’s a demand."

After years of slow growth in solar use, a rash of solar panel theft on five continents suggests that the alternative power source may finally be catching on. Missing panels have been reported this year in Australia, Spain, and the United States, but it’s in the developing world where solar theft has been most glaring. In July, South Africa scrapped a year-old program to install solar-powered traffic lights throughout the country because of their vulnerability to theft. Streetlight panels in Calcutta also went missing, leading city leaders to abandon a plan to expand their use. And throughout Latin America, thieves frequently plunder banks of mountain-top solar panels that power telecom and Internet services. "They end up destroying the system," complains Romulo Bisetti, regional sales director for Kyocera, a tech company that produces solar products.

Construction of the panels is complex, so thieves are unlikely to melt them for minerals or metals. Instead, the stolen panels are most often sold on the black market and reused.

In poorer countries where electricity is expensive or scarce, the panels have grown in popularity thanks to their reputation as reliable energy sources — useful for resurrecting dead car batteries, recharging cellphones, and fueling a night of television viewing. Between 1999 and 2005, electricity generated from solar power increased 300 percent in India. Across Africa, it jumped 2,500 percent, compared with just 11 percent in North America. "Due to the lack of infrastructure, sometimes solar is the only alternative for people in these countries," Bisetti explains.

To ward off thieves, many solar companies now recommend antitheft protection, from barbed-wire fences to elaborate surveillance systems. In South Africa, one of the most popular methods is to paint the unused side of the panels neon pink or orange to tip off police to theft. More bright ideas are sure to follow if solar power remains the rage.