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Would you risk being hit by lightning for $100? That seems a bit ludicrous, but desperate times cause folks to do some pretty foolish things.

Across the country, thefts of copper, aluminum and bronze are on the rise at abandoned commercial buildings, construction sites, empty homes and – most dangerously – power lines along rural roads and electric co-op power substations near neighborhoods.  In some cases, thieves are putting their lives on the line to steal just a few dollars' worth of wire.  

Copper theft threatens electric reliability, safety and lives.  Many law enforcement officials believe that methamphetamine users are responsible for much of the problem. And these aren’t victimless crimes: The damage done to the electric power transmission system can pack a big punch, since electric utility equipment can be ruined without the protection copper wires provide. 

Copper wire is important to your co-op.  Your electric cooperative uses copper to ground equipment, protecting it from electrical surges and lightning by giving electricity a safe path to ground. It also uses a lot of copper wire in substations, where high-voltage electricity arriving from distant power plants is stepped down before it travels to your neighborhood. Then another transformer near your home – mounted either on a utility pole or in a green box on the ground – lowers the voltage again so you can use the power at home.

Copper is an essential component every step of the way. Your co-op’s linemen are highly trained professionals who understand the dangers of working with electricity and take proper safety precautions. To protect the public, the co-op surrounds its substations with secure fencing and posts warnin signs.

On the other hand, when “in-service” copper is removed or stolen, it can create a potentially deadly hazard to the public and the co-op workers who are called to investigate and/or replace the lost wires. Missing ground wires, for example, can energize various system components that normally aren’t energized. “Electricity can be a silent killer, similar to carbon monoxide,” says Jeremy Wilcox, operations manager for Southern Iowa Electric Cooperative, Inc., in Bloomfield. “The danger may be there, and you will not know it until it is too late.” 

Thieves want to sell the metal for scrap To a would-be thief, stealing copper wire appears to be a quick way to make a buck. Soaring metal prices – and the perception that metal theft is a quick, easy and harmless crime – likely are responsible an increase in thefts of copper and aluminum, primary components of electric distribution lines. 

Needless to say, a 542 percent increase in the price of copper since 2001 has prompted thieves to become bolder and more inventive. Burglars often climb power poles, scale or cut fences, and break into buildings to steal the precious metals. 

But the problems go far beyond just the theft of materials. Recent thefts of copper wire and equipment from electric utilities have been responsible forpower outages, additional maintenance and expenses, diminished service reliability and, in some cases, serious injury or death. For example, at an electric co-op in Oklahoma last year, metal thieves took off with about $100 worth of wire from a substation – but left behind a $1 million repair bill after a fire destroyed regulators, switches and a $600,000 transformer. More than 3,500 co-op members temporarily were left in the dark after the incident, although the
co-op moved quickly to reroute power to the affected areas. 

In New Mexico, a man was found dead beneath a power pole, electrocuted while trying to cut copper wiring from a live transformer. A Texas perpetrator lost his life when he cut into a live power line while trying to steal copper wire. Similar metal theft related deaths have been reported in North Carolina, West Virginia, Illinois and Ohio. 

What’s the solution? Stolen wire usually is taken to recycling centers and traded for cash. Although many state laws require recycling centers to keep records of transactions, enforcement can be difficult. Some electric cooperatives stamp copper and aluminum wire with an ID number to deter theft; without identifying marks, stolen wire is hard to track and rarely is recovered. 

You can help prevent these thefts.

  • If you notice anything unusual around co-op facilities such as an open substation gate, open equipment cabinet or hanging wire, immediately call your electric cooperative. If you see anyone other than co-op personnel or contractors around substations or other electric co-op facilities, call the police.
  • Install motion-sensor lights and/or video surveillance systems on the outside of your house and business to deter possible thieves. 
  • Post “No Trespassing” or security system signs around your property. 
  • Eliminate easy access points to buildings and roofs, such as trees, ladders, scaffolding, dumpsters,
    and stacks of firewood or construction materials. 
  • Store tools and wire cutters in a secure location whenever you’re not using them. 
  • If you work in construction, don’t leave wires or plumbing unattended or leave loose wire at the job site, especially overnight.  

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