Protecting components from theft


With neat rows of modules set against blue skies and sometimes-spectacular natural landscapes, a PV power plant can be an arresting sight. A visually unfortunate, but important, part of that image is perimeter fencing and a security vehicle either patrolling the fence or idling by the entrance.
When visiting solar parks in many different parts of the world, pv magazine has observed a wide array of security measures. At the 10 MW Helioparque Jerez, close to the picturesque Spanish town of Jerez de la Frontera, a security vehicle sits in quiet vigil near a large-scale tracking array. On the disputed peninsular of Crimea, Activ Solar employs a different strategy. Local police patrol the power plants, keeping parks under the eye of the law, but their presence also helps garner local support for solar array by providing local employment – according to the Austrian developers. However, not only is putting security manpower onthe ground by PV power plants a potentially expensive solution, some security experts report that it is not even particularly effective.
“Guards are often underequipped and can also just be lazy,” says security consultant Jasper Jasperson from Encom consulting. “And the more remote the location of the solar plant, the more at risk the guard is himself.” There are (possibly apocryphal) stories circulating among the PV community about guards being bribed, held at gunpoint and even the families of guards being strong-armed by thieves looking to steal valuable solar modules and components from solar parks.
Looking to the PV installed landscape, security is emerging as a significant issue. With something like 30 GW of PV power plants installed in Europe alone, it is a huge quantity of assets sitting in the open air, potentially presenting thieves with a sizable windfall. So how vulnerable are these assets?
“There are many 5 MW or 7 MW fields [installed in Germany] without even one security camera. If there is one theft in a one area, then the thieves will come back with several trucks at a later time,” says Jasperson.

Reported thefts

It can be difficult to track exact numbers of PV plant component thefts, as O&M companies are reticent to reveal such details. Tracking media reports can be effective and the map (right) charts some recent component losses in Germany. Statistics also reveal that modules are not the only target for thieves.
German solar park EPC and O&M provider Sybac Solar provides O&M services to many MWs of installations in Europe, and marketing and press spokesman Achim Nehrenberg says that theft has been an issue on plants that it monitors. Without wanting to go into details and potentially encourage further thefts, Nehernberg says that in recent months a significant amount of PV components and equipment has been stolen, totaling a six-figure (euro) sum. Nehernberg reports that it is not only modules and inverters that have been taken from the field, but even copper wiring, dug out from the earth. Sybac is heightening security at its parks and is employing a range of techniques, including employing security personnel, anti-theft measures on equipment and increased surveillance.

Security measures

Ecom’s Jasperson advocates exactly this type of integrated security solution for solar parks. He doesn’t look particularly favorably on the strategy of putting security boots on the ground, and instead suggests taking a proactive course of action that incorporates security planning into the park design process.
Here, location plays a role. In Germany, many solar parks are located by the side of the interstate highway system – the autobahn. The availability of land nearby these busy and often loud transport arteries are the obvious reason for this site selection, but there also major downfalls.
With tens or even hundreds of thousands of motorists passing by an array each day, Jasperson says that it presents thieves the opportunity to not only scope-out the PV power plant in the days or weeks leading up to an attempted theft, but also to get away with the PV components quickly. Many German autobahns famously impose no speed limit, and with security alarm response times from police up to 30 minutes, there is a wide open window for thieves to be well away from the scene after loading up on PV loot.
Park design itself can also play a role. Many PV power plant components are bulky and heavy, requiring thieves to use large trucks for their transport. If potential access points are limited, and then security measures placed in these areas – such as thermal imaging equipment – evidence can be collected as to the thieves’ identity.
For existing parks, changing location or radical redesigns are obviously not an option. Security cameras, thermal imaging equipment and fencing upgrades are all available as useful options to step up security. For very large parks, where solar equipment can be hundreds of meters or even kilometers from the perimeter fencing (which is sometimes a positive given that these surveillance devices will not shade modules), Jasperson advocates a more unusual solution.
“Radar is an interesting theme for very huge solar plants,” he says. “With a radar you can monitor over 1 km and with only one installation point have a really good security option. Radar is also able to make the distinction between a car, van, person and truck.” Jasperson advocates using one radar station in combination with a number of thermal imaging cameras. The radar can be installed on the north of a plant, in the northern hemisphere, at a height of 15 to 20 meters. While radar can be deployed for 360 degree monitoring, placing it at the north of a plant avoids shading. He adds that radar can also distinguish between an animal coming on to a field, or a thief, reducing the false alarms that can plague systems such as laser or trip wire alarming.

Module level

As module level monitoring begins to move into the PV industry, so does module-level surveillance. German company viamon has developed security technology that can be retroactively added to modules, both arming the module with an alarm and allowing it to be tracked, using GPS, over mobile phone communication infrastructure. Sending location data back to viamon’s monitoring hub, this allows for modules to be followed remotely and, crucially, for thieves to be located and valuable evidence collected.
“Viamon technology is located inside the PV assets – fitted inside the junction box and invisible from the outside,” says viamon founder and CEO Oliver Strecke. “Our approach is to be as discreet as possible as well as false alarm-proof, so the individual security company does not lower its threshold.” In a demonstration of its technology, viamon worked with German journalists to track e-waste, in the form of a discarded television, as it made its way from Germany through to Africa, where it was scrapped in a remote location.
While it is necessary to be mindful not to give away too much information of the process to potential thieves, placing the viamon technology inside the junction box presents would-be thieves with the opportunity to remove it, therefore preventing tracking.
“You can breach pretty much any security system given time, but it would just take the thief too long [to take off every junction box],” says Strecke. “Even with the technology removed, an alarm is triggered and the theft would still be reported.”

Numbers game

Viamon says its technology comes at a cost of between €0.01/W to €0.03/W for smaller plants and below €0.01/W for plants larger than 10 MW. The offset to this, claims Viamon, is the reduction in insurance premiums that comes through installing a security system such as Viamon’s. Last month Viamon announced a partnership with Adler Solar to equip a solar park in Germany.
For Jasperson, the insurance factor is a major one. He says that once a theft has taken place at a plant, reinsuring it will incur higher premiums, whether doing so with the existing insurer or when approaching a new one. For Jasperson, it is simply too late at that stage for park owners and operators to be thinking about holistic security solutions.
“It’s important to make the first step before the insurance puts the pressure on,” he concludes. “Investors have to take care of their babies. They can make a lot of money for them, but only if they look after their baby properly.”

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