Simon Nash, of Cresatech, reveals how new technology is helping to alleviate the human and operational costs of copper theft

t’s a strange world where anyone would deliberately put themselves amongst power cabling energised at over 100,000 volts, and then intentionally unearth it. Yet, despite the inherent dangers, that is precisely what copper thieves do every day. The issue has become a global epidemic. The market price of copper has meant that high-voltage equipment, found at locations like electrical substations, cellular masts, railways and sewage works, are targets for criminals. The theft itself could put themselves, and indeed others inadvertently exposed to the risks of unearthed electricity - in great danger. It is therefore no surprise that the industries most affected by copper theft are finally recognising the need to put health and safety strategy at the heart of their operations. Organisations responsible for earthing


infrastructure not only have a duty to protect their employees and the community at large, they must also safeguard the people trying to steal from them. Failure to do so can result in huge fines and, potentially, imprisonment. It can also result in the loss of life. It is a significant ongoing challenge and this is why copper theft should be treated not only as matter of security, but more importantly, as a matter of safety. Thankfully, technology has, quite

ironically, unearthed the solution. New machine-to-machine (M2M) communications technology is alleviating the safety risks caused by copper theft and giving a high-voltage shot in the arm to the organisations exposed to it.

HUMAN RISK The ramifications of copper theft are wide-reaching. Primarily, the risk of electrocution goes beyond the criminal element and extends to service engineers, who may unknowingly be exposed to compromised earthing infrastructure, and to curious passers-by who innocently stumble into precarious settings. Similarly, consumers can also be at risk if they are unlucky enough to have a household appliance that trips at the same time as the earthing infrastructure at their local substation is stolen. Although serious domestic injuries are rare, power surges can lead to explosions, fire, and equipment failure, when earthing infrastructure is faulty. In each case, the operators are accountable for any damages. At the worst extreme, it can be seen as corporate manslaughter.

OPERATIONAL RISK Copper theft also causes significant operational disruption, wreaking expensive havoc on continuity and productivity. In sectors like electricity, water and transportation, disruption can lead to huge fines from the regulators. For example, in the UK, a 2016 High Court judgment had warned Thames Water that it faces penalties, of 100 per cent of its net revenues, if it is responsible for any further pollution incidents. Copper theft, which could cause loss of power to a pumping station, meaning sewage ends up in the river, could easily trigger such a transgression. The crime also has a domino-effect on

other essential services. In 2008, an FBI study warned that copper theft posed significant threats to critical infrastructure - “disrupting the flow of electricity, telecommunications, transportation, water supply, heating and emergency services and presenting a risk to both public safety and national security.” Almost a decade later, the threats remain the same, but the problem has not been curbed.

SECURE BUT UNSURE Until now, the majority of operators - in particular Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) - have tried to tackle the issue by bolstering their security infrastructure. Companies have invested heavily in security technologies such as motion detection sensors, CCTV, sophisticated electronic locks and ‘smart’ fencing. It is an understandable approach; if you can stop the thieves from breaking in, you cut off the problem at source. Except it’s not that simple. The theft of copper doesn’t actually stop a facility from working - it simply leaves it in a high-risk, precarious state. When copper has been stolen, it is rarely obvious because, at face value, the substation will still be functioning as normal. Operators often don’t know the problem exists until it is too late, typically when an engineer arrives on site, oblivious to the peril ahead. Unfortunately, security solutions do

little to help identify incidence of copper theft. The alarms may sound, but this doesn’t tell you what has actually happened on-site. Even when the blue lights are sent out to investigate, they still have no idea whether the earthing infrastructure has been tampered with or how to secure it. Security measures are





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