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by Share Brandt

Keep a Watchful Eye
on Your Neighborhood

Would you risk being struck by a bolt of lightning for a hundred bucks? Seems a bit ludicrous, but desperate times cause some folks to do foolish things.

Copper in wire is appealing to thieves who want to sell the metal for scrap. Burglars will often climb power poles, scale fences, and break into buildings to steal the precious metal. Needless to say, a 542-percent increase in the price of copper since 2001 has prompted thieves to become bolder and more inventive.

Electric utilities use copper to ground our equipment, protecting it from electrical surges and lightning by giving electricity a safe path to ground. We use a lot of copper wire in our substations, where we step-down high-voltage electricity arriving from distant power plants before it travels to your neighborhood. Then another transformer near your home—either mounted on a utility pole or in a secure 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.

Lives on the Line

Our lineworkers are highly trained professionals who understand the dangers of working with electricity and take proper safety precautions. To protect the public we surround our substations with secure fencing and post warning signs. But some thieves will not be deterred.

It’s hard to understand why folks would put their life on the line for a few dollars. Despite the extreme danger that comes with entering a substation, the copper wire inside makes for an attractive target—all a thief has to do is make a couple of cuts and get out. For the relatively small value of the stolen copper, crooks leave a mess that can be very expensive to clean up.

Cutting the ground wires on rural distribution lines is another popular form of theft. And the damage done to our systems packs a big punch, since equipment can be ruined without the protection copper wires provide. There’s also the potential for loss of life. A substation or pole that’s left ungrounded becomes a dangerous place.

Penalties, Rewards

Folks, it is against the law to tamper with electric utility property by stealing copper or otherwise compromising the electric system. The penalties can carry up to a $10,000 fine or imprisonment up to nine months, or both.

If you report a theft to authorities and the thieves are arrested and prosecuted the electric co-ops offer the witness who reported the crime a reward of $2,500. In fact, in 2011 an alert scrap-metal dealer was suspicious of the source of scrap metal being presented at his facility. He notified the co-op and, as he suspected, the co-op’s pole yard had recently been broken into. Through videotape surveillance and other evidence the authorities successfully caught and prosecuted the thieves. The scrap-metal dealer received $2,500 for doing the right thing and notifying the co-op and law enforcement.

Please help us prevent these thefts. If you notice anything unusual, such as an open substation gate, open equipment, or hanging wire, call your co-op immediately. If you see anyone other than utility personnel or contractors around substations or other electric facilities, call the police. We need you to keep a watchful eye on your neighborhood. You may save a life.