If you have ever been a victim of theft, you know it is not
an easy place to be. Electric utilities and phone companies
feel the same way.
Given the increasing frequency of copper thefts spurred by
rising metal prices, electrical power and telecommunications
companies are looking to law enforcement, security measures and
substitution to curb costs and deter would-be thieves.
While all copper consumers are vulnerable to theft, none is
quite as exposed as phone companies and electric utilities,
whose vast infrastructures can be next to impossible to police.
Copper thieves tend to target low-traffic areas and favor
stealing water pipes from churches and foreclosed homes,
cutting down phone and power lines, and stealing the thick,
pure copper grounding rod from electrical substations.
"In many cases the copper thefts occur in very isolated
areas where there's not a lot of traffic and the locations are
hard to get to," said Lee Gierczynski, Verizon Communications
Inc.'s media relations manager for western Pennsylvania and
West Virginia. "They may cut down a section of cable between
two telephone poles and it can take our crews between 24 and 48
hours to get new cable back in place."
The impact on copper consumers is twofold service
disruptions for their customers and repair costs.
"We've had 35,000 to 40,000 customers be out of power for up
to a couple of days," said Walt Johnston, vice president of
power delivery at Southern California Edison Co., which serves
more than 13 million people.
Worse, repair costs can run into the millions of dollars
annually. A recent phone cable theft in western Pennsylvania
resulted in more than $120,000 in damage to Verizon's
facilities, for example, and Alabama Power Co., which provides
electricity to more than 1.4 million customers in the state,
estimates that replacing grounding wire at a substation costs a
minimum of $8,000 in parts and labor.
"If you've had 100 substations hit in a year, that adds up
very quickly," Randy Mayfield, security director at Alabama
Power, said. Since substation thefts often result in fires, the
cost can escalate to between $200,000 and $300,000 in
substation equipment damage, he added.
Such thievery also carries hefty risks. "Anyone going inside
an electrical substation is looking death in the eye," a
spokesman for one major domestic electrical utility warned.
Copper thefts tend to track red metal prices, with instances
increasing as metal prices rise. While most utilities reported
a marked decline in thefts in 2009-when spot copper prices on
the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange averaged
$2.3654 per pound, down from $3.1318 in 2008- many are seeing
an uptick this year, with copper prices averaging $3.245 per
Deterring theft brings higher security costs. Alabama Power
instituted an aggressive security program in 2008, when
instances of theft hit 163. The company switched to
cut-resistant wire fencing, razor ribbon instead of barbed
wire, and placed real-time video surveillance at
more-vulnerable substations. "We arrested 54 people for
stealing copper in Alabama just from our facilities," Mayfield
said. The following year, theft instances fell by almost
three-quarters to just 41, but "a lot of that admittedly has to
do with the cost of copper going down," Mayfield said.
Some copper consumers have focused their efforts on law
enforcement. Both Verizon and AT&T Inc. offer rewards for
information leading to the apprehension of copper thieves or
the recovery of stolen copper, as do several utility companies
across the country.
Consumers also have pushed to restrict thieves' ability to
resell their loot by working with legislatures to tighten how
the copper scrap and general recycling industry operates.
Alabama Power helped sponsor a law mandating that scrap
dealers collect identification and vehicle descriptions, in
addition to issuing payment via check. "That's helped a lot to
deter people from stealing copper, and it helps us identify
individuals when we have a theft," Mayfield said.
California passed a similar law in 2008 requiring recyclers
to collect a copy of a picture ID, name, license plate number
and thumb print from scrap peddlers, and delay paying them for
three days. "It used to be a cash-and-carry business. This new
law has dramatically changed that market," Johnston said.
At the same time, consumers are pursuing substitution, where
possible. While copper wire remains the core material for phone
service and electricity transmission, many utilities are
switching to copper-clad steel grounding rod at their electric
substations, which is cheaper than pure copper, lowering
replacement cost. That does little to prevent theft, however,
since most thieves won't know the difference between the two
products until they've taken it to a recycler
But substitution is expensive, Johnston said. "We have 900
substations, so the cost to retrofit all of these (with
copper-clad steel grounding wire) would be huge. You'd spend a
lot of money, way more than the amount you lose each year to
In the case of phone companies, Verizon finds that thieves
can't distinguish between copper cable and the smaller fiber
optic cable, since both are covered with insulation.
And many say copper remains the best investment for their
customers. "Our plan is to just continue to use copper products
because it's the best-performing product for our system," the
spokesman for a major utility said. TATYANA