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Copper thefts prompt changes in electrical grid

As the price of copper continues to rise, so does the frequency of copper theft from hydro sites, even when thieves have died in the process. Hydro One is now replacing the copper with a new wire that can’t be sold at scrap metal dealers.

Lori Gardner, senior manager of asset protection and investigative services at Hydro One, said because copper is now $3 a pound they’ve seen a definite increase in theft from their transformer stations. She said they add additional security at their facilities to deter thieves, but their best bet is a new wire they’re installing instead of the copper.

“Right now we’re switching to a copper steel composite wire that has no scrap value,” Gardner said. “So at stations if there’s maintenance or repairs or new builds we’re switching out to this new wire with no scrap value. It doesn’t make us a victim anymore because they won’t come steal it anymore because it won’t be worth anything.”

There’s no time period for it to be done across the province but she said they’re actively swapping  out the old copper right now. It affects all of Ontario and not just one area, she added. Telecommunications companies and railways are also seeing the effects of copper thieves. Some people steal it from railways, which then affects signaling.

“It’s not just big reels. They’ll go into a transformer station and steal 10 feet of the wire off of a live transformer,” Gardner said. “So that’s what makes it a huge safety issue. Once you remove that there is a touch issue.”

They can then take it into scrap dealers and they’re not required to provide identification. She said it’s a major concern because it affects the safety and the reliability of the power system. Thieves often pull copper from live wires, which is highly dangerous, and can affect the power supply to people across the province. They started to see the effects of it in 2006 when the price started to change.

“It really is an issue for all critical infrastructure,” Gardner said.

A greenhouse at the University of Waterloo was broken into on September 19 and 22, where copper metal pipes were stolen, among other items like tools and radios. Copper wire valued at $4,100 was also stolen from a trailer in Kitchener this past June.

About $2 million in copper is stolen from Hydro One annually. But Gardner says it likely costs them closer to $5 million when you add in the cost of repairs and labour. Since 2010, eight people have died in connection with copper thefts.

The people of Harvey, NB were without power for a day earlier this year after an explosion happened when thieves stole copper from a power station.

Gardner said the police have always been very supportive and watched their facilities when they’ve had an issue. New signs will be posted at Hydro One stations explaining the new wire has no scrap value.

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