Copper Cables Stolen From Solar Power Plants Around Japan; Thieves Seek to Cash In On High Copper Prices

Courtesy of a solar power plant management firm
Copper cables have been cut off at a site in Omitama, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Thefts of copper transmission cables from solar power facilities are increasing rapidly, particularly in the Kanto region.

About 5,300 cases were reported in Tokyo and six other prefectures in the Kanto area last year, or 3.5 times the figure in the previous year, according to a survey by The Yomiuri Shimbun.

The Yomiuri contacted police and other sources in the seven prefectures in the Kanto region, and in 13 prefectures that each have over 100 facilities belonging to electric power sales companies.

Thefts in the seven prefectures in the Kanto region jumped from 1,485 in 2022 to 5,295 in 2023, the survey found. The largest number was reported in Ibaraki Prefecture at 1,675, followed by Tochigi Prefecture at 1,132 and Gunma Prefecture at 1,108.

The number of thefts is believed to be particularly large in these prefectures because the northern Kanto region has large fields, which makes it easier to build solar power plants there.

In other regions, Fukushima Prefecture reported 121 cases, followed by Miyagi Prefecture at 84, Mie Prefecture at 43, and Hyogo and Okayama prefectures at eight each. Some prefectural police do not have such data.

Thieves are believed to be taking the cables to sell the copper to dealers, as prices are rising. According to JX Metals Corp., a leading manufacturer of non-ferrous metals, copper was priced at ¥1.34 million per ton as of March this year, a nearly 100% increase from five years before.

Such damage will hinder the spread of solar power generation, so the Natural Resources and Energy Agency is contacting solar power operators in the regions where thefts have been reported and urging them to be cautious.

‘Treasure trove’ for thieves

Police across the country are working to uncover the culprits. However, as solar panels are easy to spot and many solar power plants are unmanned with few security measures, thieves apparently see them as a treasure trove. To prevent further damage, efforts are being made to tighten controls on the purchase of metals.

“I didn’t expect so many to be stolen,” said an outraged executive of a company managing a 1.5-hectare facility in Omitama, Ibaraki Prefecture. The first theft took place in December 2022. About 850 meters of copper cables, worth about ¥5.5 million, connected to the solar panels were taken. Each time cables were reinstalled, they were stolen, with the facility experiencing six thefts in six months.

This prompted the company to take preventive measures, installing sensors that issue an alert when people are detected, among other measures. The initial expense was about ¥3 million, and maintenance costs several tens of thousands of yen each month. However, the thefts have stopped.

“We regret we neglected to take sufficient security measures because the damage was covered by insurance,” the executive said.

Ibaraki Prefecture has the nation’s second largest number of relatively large facilities belonging to solar power sales companies. Last year, the number of thefts in the prefecture increased to 2.6 times the level in the previous year. Damage has also been reported in Gunma, Tochigi and Chiba prefectures.

Groups of foreigners

Investigators said the most likely targets are facilities without surveillance cameras or contracts with security companies. In many cases, several people drive their cars nearby, cut copper cables with knives, put them in the back of the car and flee, according to the investigators.

The Yomiuri Shimbun survey showed that at least 42 people were arrested in the Kanto region last year on suspicion of stealing copper wires from solar power facilities. Of those, Japanese accounted for 30%, while 60% were Cambodians. Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian and Chinese nationals were also arrested. Illegal aliens are believed to have come together for the thefts after contacting each other through social media. Investigators believe there are many such groups.

By summer last year, the Ibaraki prefectural police had arrested a group of five Cambodian men on suspicion of theft. They are alleged to have participated in about 80 cases, with the total damage amounting to ¥270 million.

In December, the National Police Agency instructed prefectural police and others to compile a detailed list of the damage to solar power generation facilities, in order to ascertain the situation nationwide.

Affecting nonlife insurance industry

The increase in thefts at solar power plants is also affecting the nonlife insurance industry.

Insurance policies for solar power plants are mainly designed to provide compensation in the event of breakdowns. However, insurance payments to cover damage resulting from thefts are rapidly increasing recently. Four major nonlife insurance companies paid out about ¥4.2 billion in insurance claims for theft in fiscal 2021, but the figure ballooned to about ¥13.3 billion in fiscal 2022, the Yomiuri found. The latest figure had already reached about ¥12.4 billion in the first half of fiscal 2023 alone.

Some companies in the nonlife insurance industry are considering raising premiums because they sometimes have to pay out more than they receive in premiums.

To deter thefts, it is also necessary to cut off sales channels for stolen copper cables. There are moves in Ibaraki and Chiba prefectures to revise or enact related ordinances to prevent culprits from bringing in stolen goods to metal buyers.

The pillar of the envisaged ordinances will be to require buyers to keep sellers’ identification papers and transaction records. Both local governments aim to propose this to prefectural assemblies by the end of this year.