Copper theft costs electric utilities millions of dollars each year. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, metal thefts — particularly copper — continue to be a significant problem in the United States, and the number of metal theft claims is statistically connected to the price of copper.
Throughout the U.S., copper theft is on the rise, but companies are taking a stand against the robberies through preventive measures. For example, PPL Electric Utilities, a Pennsylvania utility, recently announced a reward program offering up to $1,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone stealing copper wire or other materials from any of its facilities. The program is one tool the utility is using to dampen the appetite of copper thieves who risk their lives to snip ground wires and other copper-bearing materials.
While no rewards have been paid out yet, the program has generated leads that law enforcement has followed up on. Corporate security for PPL Corp., the utility’s parent company, works closely with police departments in combating the problem. The company also installed signs promoting the reward program on the perimeter fences of 400 substations throughout eastern and central Pennsylvania.
Implementing Theft-Deterrent Measures
PPL Electric Utilities experienced 36 copper thefts in 2012 and more than 50 copper thefts in 2013. For the first quarter of 2014, however, the utility has experienced just a handful of copper thefts. The reasons behind the relatively calm start to the year are uncertain, but the harsh winter, the reward program and ongoing security work at substations are all potential factors.
Despite the dip in thefts early this year, PPL Electric Utilities has not stopped its efforts to deter copper thieves. For example, the utility works cooperatively with recycling and scrap metal dealers in its service area. To alert these dealers of potential theft and to help deter theft in the first place, the company began painting the ends of its copper grounds blue several years ago. So far, this initiative has had only limited success.
The utility has embarked on a several initiatives, including changes to grounding methods, beefed up fencing, and better lighting and intrusion detection. The intent is to form a more comprehensive protection system. The new protections are being applied to all substations across the utility’s 29-county service territory in central and eastern Pennsylvania. The result is a substation that more easily detects potential intruders, makes it more difficult for them to gain entry and presents little value if they succeed.
Protecting Infrastructure and the Field Workforce
By protecting its substations, PPL is not only guarding against the theft of copper but also the resulting impact to its customer service.
When a thief attempts to cut or steal copper ground wire from a substation, hundreds or thousands of customers served by that facility can go out of service. Repairing the damage caused by these thieves is expensive, and those costs are ultimately borne by all customers. Repair costs vary, but it is not unusual to have to spend $10,000 to $20,000 or more to make repairs and replace wire. That can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more, in costs.
During a metal theft, thieves can not only significantly impact power reliability, but they can also put their own lives at risk by making contact with energized equipment. And thieves can endanger the lives of linemen responsible for maintaining a substation if they steal a copper ground wire.
As such, the company stresses to its employees and contractors the importance of not leaving material either inside or outside substations. Also, the employees have a heightened awareness about break-ins and suspicious activity, and in these situations, they are trained to immediately alert corporate security and law enforcement.
To help confront this problem head on, PPL Electric Utilities has tried to get the word out to the local community. By making its customers aware of the copper theft issue, the utility hopes to stem the problem. A vigilant public is one of the utility’s best defenses, and by encouraging its customers to speak up, the utility hopes to continue to drive down the number of thefts in its service territory.
Matt Green ([email protected]) is the director of engineering for PPL Electric Utilities. He has been with the company for 10 years and is responsible for the substation and engineering, standards, transmission planning and maintenance and asset management groups. PPL Electric Utilities Corp., a subsidiary of PPL Corp., provides electricity delivery services to about 1.4 million customers in Pennsylvania.
PPL Electric Utilities | www.pplelectric.com
Sidebar: Copper Thefts on the Rise
The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) discovered that copper thefts have increased by 81% since 2008, and according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, these thefts can threaten critical U.S. infrastructure.
Here are some of the NICB’s findings from its report released last March.
- More than 33,700 insurance claims for the theft of copper, bronze, brass or aluminum were handled from Jan. 1, 2010, through Dec. 31, 2012, and 96% were for copper alone. This shows a 36% increase in claims when compared with the 25,083 claims reported between Jan. 1, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2011.
- Ohio ranked first of all the states generating 3,228 metal theft claims, followed by Texas (2,624), Georgia (1,953), California (1,888) and North Carolina (1,682).
- The Top 5 core-based statistical areas generating the most metal theft claims:
- New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ (1,275)
- Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, IL (1,154)
- Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA (1,019)
- Dallas-Ft. Worth-Arlington, TX (849)
- Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE (786).
Source: National Insurance Crime Bureau