When you hear the phrase “electricity theft,” you may automatically picture places like India or Brazil where the number of power outages is astounding. Unfortunately, electricity thieves can be found in nearly every country across the globe, including the U.S. Whether it’s performing illegal hookups, tampering with meters, or stealing copper wire from substations, over $200 billion in electricity is lost each year due to equipment failure or electricity thieves. In the U.S. alone, this crime costs roughly $6 billion annually, which makes it the third most stolen commodity following credit card information and vehicles.
Reducing, and eventually eliminating, this unlawful activity is one reason why utilities want to install more advanced power meters. Recording consumer data on a regular basis will assist utilities in detecting any unusual activity, therefore decreasing the amount of money utilities lose and abolishing additional price hikes for customers.
Brazilian utilities are improving their smart meter technology and working to install these devices on the outside of homes or on top of electricity poles, as opposed to inside residents’ homes. Last year, a Bloomberg article covering this topic stated, “The meters can detect unusually heavy demand, which may signal an illegal hookup. They can also be used to shut off service to households and businesses that don’t pay their bills. The devices remove the human factor from the equation, so customers can no longer collude with dishonest meter readers to cheat the power company.”
Awesense, a Vancouver-based company dedicated to confronting energy theft, is taking another approach to put an end to this crime. According to Mischa Steiner-Jovic, CEO of Awesense, “Utilities generate billions of dollars of power every year that they don’t get compensated for and never gets to their customers.”
The company’s theft-detection system features a simple device that has the ability to identify where electricity is being diverted. A small sensor can be attached to power lines to measure the amount of current flowing through. The sensor will calculate electricity consumption and deliver the data back to Awesense through their application called SenseNET. Once a comparison of billed electricity and actual consumption is analyzed, the software can then determine if and where theft is occurring.
The company is working with utilities located in Turkey, Bulgaria, Malaysia, and the Czech Republic, underlining the fact that electricity theft is becoming a global problem that continues to get worse. Recent incidents have been recorded in a number of different countries. Over the last three years, Ireland’s major energy supplier has noticed a 50 percent growth in offenders tampering with meter boxes. Last year, a man was sentenced to prison after stealing copper wire from a PECO substation. It took about two years for a woman in Connecticut to be caught stealing over $3,000 worth of electricity. Ninety people were suspected as participants of a scheme to help restaurants in Hong Kong lower their utility bills, which eventually cost the utility millions.
These are just a few examples of how electricity thieves can be located all over the world and how extreme this type of crime can be. Aside from damage to utilities, electricity theft is a dangerous activity. Tampering with live power lines may result in severe shock, fire, and even death. “Not only is energy theft illegal, it is a safety threat- to those who tamper with electric utility equipment, to the general public and to utility workers who can be injured or killed by hazards left behind by the culprit,” stated Chuck Walls, vice president of customer financial operations of ComEd. Some may think electricity theft is a victimless crime, but judging by Walls’ statement and the effects on innocent customers, that cannot be farther from the truth.