Utilities: Why it's time to get tougher on energy theft (And on ourselves)

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Many utilities are surprisingly tolerant of energy theft. As you'll read in this guest editorial by Alan Snook, there are some understandable reasons for that forbearance. Including the difficulty of easily and accurately detecting theft.

 

But that is now changing, as he describes. As this information filters out to regulators and ratepayer advocates, I predict that they will begin to demand that utilities do more to detect and prevent theft. Use the Talk Back form at the bottom to agree or disagree. – By Jesse Berst

 

By Alan Snook

 

We all know there is no good way to call a baby “ugly.” Likewise, there is no good way to mention power theft without curling the hair on someone’s neck. Hence the "polite" descriptors our industry uses to describe the problem -- non-technical losses, pilferage, revenue protection, unauthorized use, unmetered use, and diversion among others.

 

Regardless of how bland the name, the problem is still the same -- some people are illegally tapping power from the distribution system and the rest of us are paying for it.  An estimated $6 billion is stolen annually in the United States. Canadian utilities lose hundreds of millions of dollars to theft each year. Puerto Rico has publicly stated losses of $400-$600 million annually. Certain areas within India report that 25%-55% of all power is stolen. Many Latin American countries similarly describe very heavy losses.

 

The global electric industry is experiencing a very draining effect. How long can this costly injustice be permitted to continue?

 

To be fair, it’s understandable that utilities feel uncomfortable admitting theft is occurring within their territory. In addition, it can be very bad publicity to turn off power to suspected thieves, until and unless they have actually been convicted. Such convictions often require a degree of proof that has been hard to come by. What's more, some regulators have shrugged their shoulders at theft, accepting it as a cost of doing business and simply passing it along to the other ratepayers.

 

On top of all that, the tools for properly detecting theft have been limited. Until now, that is.

 

Why AMI is not the full answer

There once was a hope that Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) would improve power theft detection. Unfortunately, while these new meters are smart, the power thieves are smarter. For instance, they now commonly tap power lines in front of the smart meters, thus circumventing the utility’s ability to identify the unmetered consumption.

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