Johannesburg - Even as embattled South Africans face hours of darkness, there is an another threat looming: home-break-ins and thefts targeting equipment to avert powerlessness.
As load shedding hours grew longer, South Africa saw a boom in small-scale solar installations, and the sale of generators, inverters, and modular uninterruptible power supply (UPS) devices.
Insurance company Auto & General said it had seen an increase in home break-ins and load shedding was one of the contributing factors.
“Solar panel theft is an emerging trend, one that we are keeping an eye on,” said chief executive officer Ricardo Coetzee.
The company also said its data covering the first 16 days of January 2022 and January 2023, showed there was a 40% increase in burglaries during load shedding.
Security company Fidelity Services Group said solar panels were targeted because they did not have serial numbers and if they did, they were on a sticker which could be removed easily.
Fidelity spokesperson Charnel Hattingh said: “There are a couple of companies investing in products that have been available to track panels. It is, however, very expensive.”
She said the agricultural sector was investigating technology to link a panel to its buyer or owner.
“The idea would be to have a communication grid as well. As these panels are being moved past these technology readers or gateway points, they would be monitored in control rooms with software for despatching and recovering the devices. It would be a way to make sure the panel becomes inoperable, should the security tag be removed,” said Hattingh.
She also said there seemed to be more cases reported when commercial properties were unoccupied such as over weekends when staff members were not on site.
Hattingh said solar panels were also often not monitored by existing security systems such as alarms, and security gates and electric fencing did not deter thieves.
“It seems that batteries are also popular targets for thieves when they gain access to a property.”
She said thieves who strike during load shedding or when properties were unoccupied would have enough time to dismantle the system before fleeing.
“Stolen items are, in our experience, often sold to people who are looking to use it as scrap materials or as their own alternative energy source.”
Another insurer said their data did not indicate an increase in load shedding-related thefts or burglaries, but this did not indicate that solar panels and other back-up systems were not vulnerable to theft.
Tarina Vlok, managing director of Elite Risk Acceptances, a subsidiary of Old Mutual Insure, said the unstable power supply causing damage to property was more of a problem.
“A much bigger concern is the increase in power surge damages and related claims due to the impact of load shedding. Most insurers have implemented measures to limit their exposure to these claims,” she added.
Recently King Price Insurance’s client experience partner Wynand van Vuuren told Mybroadband.com that solar panel theft was a growing trend, and he only expected it to escalate as more South Africans pushed to improve their energy security.
King Price revealed that R3.6 billion worth of solar panels was estimated to be imported to South Africa during the first quarter of 2023.
Van Vuuren’s statements come after Solarise Africa co-founder and COO Sakkie van Wijk warned that South Africa’s booming solar power market had started to attract criminals.
Van Wijk said they were seeing dubious transactions with multiple layers of supply chains that add markups and kickbacks, leading to inflated project costs and compromised installations.
“We’ve even found large deals that were concluded with mere handshakes and absolutely no paperwork ‒ no scope, so service level agreements, no system specifications ‒ this is typically at least double the actual cost,” he said.