The Numbers Game of Energy Theft Deterrence
While technical energy losses are an inherent part of power distribution, utilities face another form of loss that is unnecessary and preventable: theft.
by Kevin Mays
While technical energy losses are an inherent part of power distribution, utilities face another form of loss that is unnecessary and preventable: theft. There is no sure way to calculate how much energy is stolen, but in the US it is estimated that $6 billion in revenue is lost annually. In most situations, that cost is passed on to consumers in the form of increased rates, which is causing many public utility commissions to put more pressure on utilities to take firmer positions against theft.
A major hurdle in the fight against energy theft has been that it is largely an invisible problem; the time and energy required to detect it often outweighs the benefit of doing so. Utilities face a simple math problem: What is the most amount of theft that can be stopped for costs that yield a net positive benefit? That equation has historically led to theft detection at the meter level and automated metering-automated meter reading (AMR) and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI)-has been the primary weapon used to battle low-level tampering.
As AMI becomes more common, theft is transitioning to a more sophisticated level, taking place on distribution lines before the energy is metered. Advances in smart grid technology that include distribution line energy monitoring are making detection and prevention of this type of theft more cost efficient. Because the degree of expertise required to tap distribution lines is high, it is largely limited to people and operations that steal large amounts of energy.
A prevalent example of modern energy is illegal marijuana grow houses. The experienced criminals that run these operations often hire expert electricians to tap into power lines to mask (steal) excess electricity. Even a small grow house can cost a utility $5,000 a year in lost revenue, making the expense involved in stopping it worthwhile.
Individual methods for stealing energy are almost infinite, but almost all of them fall into four basic categories:
1. Meter tampering-Meter tampering ranges from slowing down mechanical meters with magnets to jumping connections inside of them or rerouting high phase loads around them. Still relatively common where physical meters are used, AMI meters have made tampering much more difficult.
2. Rewiring-Common in developing countries, rewiring involves tapping directly into distribution lines before they are metered. Rewiring requires significant knowledge and resources to make the work look professional and not obvious to the naked eye; it's also dangerous and is typically the work of hired professionals or electrical hobbyists.
3. Illegal transformers-Enterprising energy thieves install their own transformers to siphon large amounts of electricity from grids, undetected. Because of the significant resources and knowledge necessary to purchase and install transformers, this type of theft is almost always a result of sophisticated, organized, profitable illegal "business" operation.
4. Unpaid bills-Simply not paying a utility bill is considered a form of theft. Unpaid bills are the most universal form of theft and cross all socioeconomic barriers. Naturally, this is the simplest form of theft for utilities to inexpensively detect and curb.
Rewiring and illegal transformers are the most difficult types of theft to detect, but they are also the methods used by criminals involved in stealing the largest volumes of power. Utilities have historically relied on imperfect means to detect sophisticated theft-maybe a technician notices a strange new transformer; perhaps a concerned citizen notifies authorities of suspicious activity; and, in some cases, outages, fires or explosions have been the factors that bring these issues to light.
With the resources available to energy thieves, rewiring and illegal transformers go unnoticed to the untrained eye and often require luck to uncover. As more utilities move to voltage monitoring and distribution automation, technical and non-technical losses in power grids are becoming more apparent, and uncovering suspicious activity no longer relies so heavily on sight and luck. When monitors detect unexpected or unexplained loss levels, special remote power monitors can be installed to pinpoint where the problem originates.
Requiring no additional power to operate and installing quickly with magnetic attachment, portable remote power monitors can be placed temporarily or permanently anywhere energy theft is possible. Energy usage is continuously monitored and reported in real-time through the utility's distribution supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system. Where SCADA is not available, some remote sensors can stand alone and report findings through wireless networks, such as cellular.
Although line monitoring makes suspected energy theft easier to detect, it is not required for remote energy usage sensing. These sensors monitor usage and isolate energy loss regardless of the method used to initially detect it. The portability of modern energy monitors minimizes the investment required to create a small cache of theft detecting hardware that can be used repeatedly in many different line locations.
Whether energy thieves are making large profits growing marijuana or simply hobbyists interested in experimenting to see if they can beat the system, it is impossible to stop every instance of theft. But the days of standing by and passing losses to consumers is nearing an end as power monitoring technology brings the cost of theft detection much lower than the lost revenues associated with allowing theft to go undeterred.
Utilities have a new tool to curb the huge losses associated with energy theft that makes financial sense to implement. The math has turned in favor of theft detection.
About the author: Kevin Mays is product / application engineer at IUS Technologies with more than 20 years of engineering design, product development and technical sales experience. He holds a BSEE from Northeastern University and his circuit design and technical expertise was gained while employed at Motorola, Uniden-America PRC and Maxim Integrated Products.