Tilted up toward the sun along Route 44 in North Carver, the new solar panels stretching the length of two football fields represent a regional premiere — the first solar farm built on a highway on the East Coast — and an active demonstration of the solar potential of major state highways.
But last weekend, the project turned into something its creators never intended: a crime scene.
Following the theft of some 25 to 30 panels from the installation, the project’s owner promises to replace the stolen equipment and improve the site’s security so the crime will not be repeated.
“We’re looking for the best [security] technology we can utilize,” managing partner John Scorsone of SolareAmerica said Wednesday. “It’s a little difficult. We’ll get through this. We won’t allow this to stop our project.”
Carver Police Chief Michael Miksch said the panels were stolen in two break-ins. More than 20 were discovered missing in the second incident last Monday.
“Someone cut a fence to gain access to the site, dismantled the panels, and used a vehicle to carry them away,” Miksch said Tuesday after returning from the site.
Stolen solar panels are valuable, the chief said. New panels cost about $500, and Miksch said he’s heard they sell secondhand for “a couple hundred dollars” on the black market.
“There’s supposedly a black market for everything,” he said.
The 99-kilowatt, 600-foot-long solar array began providing power for the town’s water treatment plant in North Carver last month. The installation has been touted as a precedent-setting use of the empty space along highways to provide green energy.
Selectwoman Sarah Hewins said last month the project would “show there are good places to site solar.”
Scorsone called it “a great utilization of unused land.”
But the brazen theft of the panels so shortly after the array began operating appeared to raise the question of whether a highway roadside really is a good place to build solar farms.
The project’s local supporters, however, were sticking to their guns.
Town Planner Jack Hunter, who attended a federal conference where energy experts argued that highways were a natural site for solar projects, said, “I still believe it.”
But the town is seeking better security from Scorsone’s company, Hunter said Tuesday. “They are his panels. It’s his responsibility to secure them. They’re under contractual obligation to replace them so they will be able to provide the amount of electricity they’re signed up for.”
The company has a long-term energy purchase agreement with the town, approved by selectmen this year. The solar array is expected to provide almost all of the power used by the treatment plant, nearly half of the total power needed by the North Carver Water District. It’s expected to save the town about $3,000 a month.
State officials said they support roadside solar arrays despite the theft.
“Installing solar projects along highways represents exciting clean energy possibilities,” said Mark Sylvia, the state’s commissioner of energy resources. A state grant contributed $150,000 to the project’s construction costs.
“This fact doesn’t change that,” added Krista Selmi, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. “We regard this as an isolated incident, though security may present a new factor to consider.”
While solar panel theft occurs “all over the country,” Scorsone said, the crime shows the Route 44 project’s isolated location requires an upgrade in the company’s security plans.
Currently the half-acre site is ringed by a security fence. The company’s plans call for a surveillance camera system, which was not installed because Internet access is not yet available on the site.
Those plans will now be upgraded to include a motion-detector alarm system. It’s a more complex system to install because you don’t want “alarms going off constantly” inadvertently set off by animals or passersby, Scorsone said.
The company is also looking into lockdown devices to make it harder to detach panels from the installation.
Scorsone said the theft appeared to be the work of someone who knew what he or she was doing. “It’s still hard to understand how this happened” without anyone observing the incident, he said. The theft of such a significant number of panels required “multiple people” to carry them away and would have taken at least an hour even if quarterbacked by someone who knew how to detach them, he said.
The circumstances led him to theorize that the panels could have been stolen by an “unscrupulous” contractor looking to charge a customer for new panels without paying for them. Scorsone also said State Police have a responsibility to patrol the highway.
Miksch said the project’s rural site may have made it possible for the dismantling of the panels to go unobserved. “It’s a pretty busy road” during the day, he said, “but if you go up there in the middle of the night, you won’t see anybody.”
Hunter said an Oregon project, the nation’s only other solar farm built along a highway, is protected only by a fence and has had no security problems. While that site is remote, it’s also more visible in terms of the number of cars passing by, he said.
According to national media, solar panel theft has been a growing problem in recent years. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have written about the problem, recounting stories of homeowners who lost roof panels and thieves who sell stolen panels on eBay.
Scorsone said the company plans to have the replacement panels in place and a new security system ready in time for the town’s Oct. 5 official ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Ironically, he added, the theft of the panels confirms his company’s long-stated contention to investors that solar panels will have an after-market value. As solar power becomes increasingly more common, demand increases for used panels.
But losing panels to thieves is an expensive way to be proven right.
“It’s very significant,” Scorsone said of the theft’s replacement costs. “It’s not cheap.”