Preventing Costly Cooper Theft

Strange things start happening when the world price of copper skyrockets to record levels as it did this year.

A Nevada electric cooperative lost $5,000 worth of copper wire in a theft at a substation.

Copper pilfered from a cooperative in Florida damaged a transformer and insulators.

An Idaho cooperative also was hit by thieves. The damage they caused initiated an outage and turned concrete to glass, all for $8 worth of copper.

Copper is incredibly useful. It is flexible and conducts electricity well. It is a staple for utilities and is used in the construction of nearly every type of electronic device.

Copper’s nontoxic nature and resistance to corrosion also make it useful in plumbing.

A Risk to Public Safety

There is lots of copper around, and as copper prices have gone up the thieves have come out.

Copper theft can have consequences way beyond the inconvenience of stolen property. According to a 2008 FBI report—the latest available— copper thieves threaten critical infrastructure by targeting electrical substations, cellular towers, telephone landlines, railroads, water wells, construction sites, and vacant homes for lucrative profits.

Copper theft from these targets disrupts the flow of electricity, telecommunications, transportation, water supply, heating, security and emergency services. It also presents a risk to public safety and national security.

Copper crimes can result in death, with regular reports of thieves being electrocuted while removing wire from utility poles or substations.

Stealing copper also jeopardizes the lives of utility workers by disconnecting critical safety devices.

Copper is the New Oil

Copper theft has been a regular problem for utilities and construction companies building homes.

Theft cases started increasing dramatically in 2001 when the construction boom in China sent demand for copper—and prices—shooting skyward.

Copper price and theft rate have fluctuated since then, but both started going up again a year ago for two reasons: economic recovery from the pandemic and demand for renewable energy.

As the use of solar energy and wind power grows, more copper wiring will be needed to carry the electricity produced. There also is a lot more copper wiring in an electric vehicle than one that runs on gasoline.

Copper’s value to greener power has led some observers to refer to it as “the new oil.”

Last year, copper prices hit a record high. In March 2022, they went even higher.

The continued importance of copper to utilities, the economy and to criminals has led to a greater focus on preventing thefts.

Laws have been toughened the past 20 years. All 50 states have statutes in place to reduce copper theft.

Many of those laws focus on making sure scrap metal dealers know the source of the copper they are buying.

Companies have developed ways to secure wiring in air conditioning units and come up with coatings that can identify stolen property.

Some copper products are being stamped with identifying codes, and video surveillance is being added to areas with a lot of copper.

Electric utilities have placed special emphasis on preventing copper theft. Through the years, utilities have launched public awareness campaigns, offered rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of thieves, marked copper wire for easier recovery from scrap metal dealers, and collaborated with stakeholders.

In addition, law enforcement has become more responsive to electric utilities facing copper theft. They are working with utilities to recover more stolen copper and arrest those responsible.

You can help by remaining alert and reporting thefts. Many copper thieves have been captured because observant citizens saw something suspicious and called 911.

Help Us Battle Copper Crime

Metal theft is a crime that endangers lives and can result in thousands of dollars in damages ultimately paid for by you.

Burglars often climb power poles, scale fences, and break into buildings to steal the precious metal and sell it for scrap. Stolen wire is commonly taken to recycling centers and traded for cash. Although scrap metal recycling laws in many states require recycling centers to keep records of transactions, enforcement is difficult.

Thieves may not understand they are risking their lives by taking copper from utility poles or substations, where high transmission voltage is stepped down to a lower current for distribution lines.

Follow these guidelines to guard against electrical dangers and prevent copper theft:

  • Never enter or touch equipment inside a substation. Stay away from power lines and anything touching a power line.
  • If you notice anything unusual with electric facilities—such as an open substation gate, open equipment or hanging wire—contact your utility immediately.
  • If you see anyone around electric substations or electric facilities other than utility personnel or contractors, call the police.
  • Install motion-sensor lights on the outside of your house and business to deter possible thieves.
  • If you work in construction, do not leave any wires or plumbing unattended or leave loose wire at the job site, especially overnight.

Copper Theft Is Everyone's Problem

Following a break-in and theft of copper, this regulator quickly became a charred shell. Photo by Mark Sellers

In April 2012, copper thieves risked their lives by entering a Peace River Electric Cooperative (PRECO) substation in Hardee County, Florida, to steal copper ground wires.

Ungrounded substation equipment quickly became overheated and failed in a blinding flash.

As a result, thousands of PRECO members were left without power for hours while repairs were made.

“Copper theft is not a victimless crime,” says Mark Sellers, communications coordinator for PRECO. “It causes thousands of dollars in damage, which eventually gets passed on to our members. Please report any suspicious activity around power lines and substations.”