Grand Theft Solar

Foreign Policy, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview
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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.

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