Electric utilities are hit hard as metal prices soar
by Paul Wesslund, Contributing Columnist
Strange things start happening when the world price of copper skyrockets to record levels like it did this year.
Thieves in Ohio recently climbed power poles and made off with 10,000 feet of copper wire. An Illinois electric cooperative reported that vandals swiped large amounts of copper wire. A Florida man was arrested for allegedly stealing more than $20,000 of copper wire from an investor-owned utility substation and trying to sell it.
Copper is incredibly useful. It’s flexible and conducts electricity well. It’s a staple for utilities and is used to make 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
So, there’s lots of it around, and over the decades when copper prices have gone up, the thieves have come out. Copper theft can have consequences way beyond just the inconvenience of stolen property.
Copper crimes can result in death, with regular reports of thieves being electrocuted while removing wire from utility poles or substations. Stealing copper also threatens the lives of utility workers by disconnecting critical safety devices.
The copper price and theft rate has fluctuated, but started going up again a year ago for two reasons: the 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 it produces. There’s 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 and sit at more than $3 a pound as of press time. Copper’s continued importance to utilities, the economy and to criminals has led to a greater focus on preventing thefts.
Laws have been toughened over the past 20 years, and now all 50 states have statutes in place to reduce copper theft. Many of those laws focus on making sure that scrap metal dealers know the source of the copper they’re 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, including cooperatives, have placed special emphasis on preventing copper theft. Over 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 and collaborate with utilities to recover more stolen copper and arrest those responsible.
You can help. Many copper thieves have been captured when observant citizens saw something suspicious and called 911.
Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.