Energy theft: From bad to worse (and what some utilities are doing about it)

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By Liz Enbysk

SGN Managing Editor

 

Mention energy theft and many will think Brazil or India where electricity losses are staggering. Yet no corner of the world seems immune from it – be it meter tampering, pilfering copper wire from substations, illegal hookups, siphoning or other unlawful schemes. Consider:

 

·         Ireland's main energy supplier has seen a 50% increase in meter box tampering in the last three years

·         In Virginia, Danville Utilities reports a growing problem with people tampering with smart meters

·         A subsidiary of DTE Energy is suing two customers for removing smart meters from their homes and replacing them with equipment they purchased themselves; the utility calls it tampering but the residents say they were justified due to health and privacy concerns

·         In Hong Kong a few months back police rounded up more than 90 people suspected in a meter-tampering scheme to help restaurants lower their utility bills; the cost to power and gas utilities was estimated at HK$30 million

·         Last month a Pennsylvania man was sentenced to prison for stealing copper ground wire from a PECO substation

·         Non-payments led to a 25% increase in electricity disconnections in the New South Wales region of Australia last year

·         A Connecticut woman stole more than $3,000 in electricity by forging medical documents to prevent her utility from shutting off her service

 

Electricity theft is not new, of course. But it is rampant today in many parts of the world where losses can amount to billions of dollars annually.

How some utilities are fighting back

We mentioned earlier the DTE Energy subsidiary suing residents for removing smart meters and replacing them with devices they got on their own. In September Commonwealth Edison issued a reminder about public safety risks associated with electricity theft after the arrest and conviction of a Wilmington, Ill., man who was charged with violation of the Illinois Public Utility Act. The man, whose service had been suspended for non-payment, had been bypassing the company's electric meter and stealing electricity at his residence, according to a ComEd press release. ComEd's Security Department alerted law enforcement officials after receiving an anonymous tip.

 

"Energy theft is a tremendous cost for utility companies across the United States," said Chuck Walls, vice president, Customer Financial Operations, ComEd. "Not only is energy theft illegal it is also 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. ComEd will continue to work with law enforcement authorities to prosecute energy thieves to the fullest extent of the law and hopefully deter others from committing this illegal and unsafe act."

 

An Accenture point of view paper -- Smart Grid Technologies: How Theft Analytics Helps Utilities Protect Assets – states that energy diversion costs ratepayers in the United States an estimated $6 billion annually. And it is leading utilities to try new programs and/or consider some of the solutions that target theft.

 

Last year the city of Fort Worth, Texas initiated measures to cut down on electricity theft in multi-family housing units by requiring managers and leasing agents to "be an extra set of eyes on electric meters," as NBCDFW.com put it. Managers and property owners are also required to go through eight hours of free training provided by the city. Power companies and landlords, the report notes, can have a difficult time tracking down energy thieves since the fraud often isn't detected until they have moved out.

 

Meanwhile in Shreveport, Lousiana the city's water department reports success with a water meter locking initiative. Since September 3,000 locking tabs have been installed on water meters with work orders to shut off service due to non-payment. According to ktbs.com, the department has seen a "significant increase" in past-due payments since it began installing the locking tabs, which are numbered and tamper proof

 

In October, ELO Sistemas Eletronicos, a leading metering provider for the South America market, announced a partnership with Vancouver, B.C.-based Awesense to help utilities in Latin America find and recover revenue that is lost to inaccuracies in metered billing or power theft. Awesense Raptors are line monitors that wirelessly communicate to the Awesense senseNET applications, providing information for utilities to reduce unnecessary losses. The companies are integrating the senseNET system into ELO's suite of products and services.

 

In November Freescale Semiconductor released a new micro-electromechanical system accelerometer featuring ultra-low power consumption and a simple plug-and-play approach to tilt threshold detection for use in physical tamper protection for smart meter applications. It detects movement on the meter through the change in tilt angle and communicates it to the utility company as a tampering event.

 

What's the best way to combat meter tampering or other types of energy theft? Have you had experience with successful utility programs and/or solutions? Please use the Talk Back comment form below to tell us about them.

 

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