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Katherine Bourzac

A View from Katherine Bourzac

Black Market for Solar Panels

Solar-panel theft is rampant in California, and this could drive up the cost even more.

  • December 28, 2009

Technology Review has reported many times that the cost of solar panels needs to come down for the technology to be widely adopted. In light of that, I was dismayed to hear on the radio on Monday morning that California has a thriving black market for solar cells. KQED, a public radio station here in San Francisco, reported that as the cost of scrap metal has fallen thieves have turned to solar panels. According to the story, California has over 34,000 solar installations and one of the highest solar-panel theft rates in the nation. Many wineries have the systems–it certainly makes a nice blurb on the label–and they’ve become favored targets. These agricultural installations are easy pickings. One vintner interviewed in the story was burgled twice before installing a security system that alerted the police when thieves targeted his solar installation a third time.

Solar-cell theft is such a big problem that Congressman Mike Thompson, who represents Napa Valley, one of California’s major wine-making regions, added a provision to the Solar Technology Roadmap Act that would create a national registry of solar panels and require the secretary of energy to come up with a plan to deal with theft. (The House has passed the bill; the Senate has not.) And startups that provide security systems that alert the owner when a panel is disconnected are blossoming.

Presumably the thieves are motivated by the demand for solar coupled with the inability of people to pay for it given the tanking economy and the technology’s expense. (Or, as a Fast Company story suggests, maybe the thieves are motivated by something else–a free source of power for the lamps used to grow another one of California’s biggest cash crops, marijuana.) But their actions could create a vicious circle. If it’s necessary to include a security system with each solar installation, that will just make solar even more expensive and accessible to fewer companies and people.

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