The voice of the networks

Tackling metal theft

Theft of copper cabling and other metals from the energy networks results in injury, death, power cuts and other safety concerns every year. We're working to eradicate it.

The issue of metal theft has become an increasingly serious one for the energy networks over the past few years. The industry is working with the government, Association of Chief Police Officers and other affected industries to coordinate the policy approach and enforcement, and legislation has been introduced to help tackle the problem.

The cost to the public

The cost incurred from metal theft to the electricity network operators was approximately £3m in 2015. This increased to around £5m in 2016. Ultimately additional costs incurred by the companies to address this issue are directly passed on to customers through electricity bills. In addition, 2016 saw 680 cases that led to the loss of electricity supply to approximately 25,500 homes resulting in damage to customer’s TVs, computers and boilers as well as causing fires as a result of the outages. The impact on businesses and consumers od such events can be calculated in the tens of thousands of pounds. 

Injuries to the public

There have been a few deaths and a number of significant injuries to members of the public over the past few years directly caused by metal theft incidents, and electricity industry staff have also suffered injury. In July 2011 a 16-year-old was killed and three other youths were arrested when they tried to steal copper from an electrical substation in Leeds. His body was found by a routine security patrol, which had been stepped up following a spate of incidents in the region.

Impact on energy security

The problem has the potential to result in whole regions being without power for hours. For example, National Grid suffered a major theft of earth wire from a 275KV overhead power line. The anti-climbing guard was cut and the tower was climbed in broad day light. The earth wire was dismantled, fell to ground and was then cut up. The earth wire is at the very top of these tall towers and could have fallen onto the live wires below, which could have interrupted the electricity supply to more than 100,000 customers. If this had been a higher voltage 400KV line then up to 500,000 customers could have been without power.

A few years ago a whole region was affected by an attempted metal theft incident following deliberate fire damage. This resulted in 94,000 customers losing power in Kent, with almost 20,000 customers being without power for more than 24 hours. It affected four major electricity circuits, affecting homes, businesses, petrol stations and Darenth Valley Hospital in Dartford.

The criminals were unsuccessful in obtaining any metal due to the intensity of the resulting fire. The costs associated with restoring power supplies included not only the physical reinstatement of equipment, but also goodwill payments by the network operator to customers and another £700,000 distributed to more than 12,000 of the worst-affected customers. A community fund of £750,000 was also set up to support local causes to benefit residents.

Gas risks from metal theft

Gas pipes and equipment as well as electricity infrastructure can be targeted, which again places customers at risk. This has caused explosions in private homes and the risk of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. In one incident two men broke into a derelict property in Hartlepool to steal copper from a gas boiler. During the attempted theft they caused a gas leak and a fire that led to a huge explosion that blew a hole in the roof of the end-terrace property and injured a bystander. The incident required over 100 people to be evacuated from their homes and a 150ft cordon to be set up for four hours, while gas engineers secured the scene and examined the structural integrity of surrounding buildings.

A chimney flue was stolen in Hull, which led to a gas leak in the home of a 64-year-old grandmother. A neighbour alerted her to the stolen flue and the boiler was turned off to avoid CO poisoning, otherwise this incident could have easily resulted in her and her grandson being killed. In Edinburgh, a man who stole pipes from a flat two floors below him almost blew up the building after causing a gas leak. The quick actions of police officers, investigating the strong smell of gas in the common stair of a block of flats, prevented what could have been a catastrophic explosion.

Metal theft value

Many metal thefts are small scale incidents that represent a low scrap value of a few hundred pounds, however, the associated risk and cost to industry and the resulting impact on the public is significant. A theft in Yorkshire cost local residents and insurers over half a million pounds in broken electrical equipment and boilers as a result of a theft of just £40 of copper. The huge cost of repairing and replacing stolen equipment, the security required, and the cost in workers’ time will all be met by customers.

Preventative action

We have worked with the government to introduce required changes that are enforced through scrap metal dealers’ legislation. Similar legislation is now in place across Europe and the majority of US States that has created a cashless scrap metal industry model accompanied by a rigorous licensing regime. Meanwhile, awareness is maintained through media campaigns and engagement on the issue, including work with the Mayor of London, the Local Government Association and reputable scrap metal dealers who want to see change.

The electricity industry is focusing on making equipment more difficult to steal and on dealing with the impact on customers from the metal theft incidents. This includes additional security measures and public education routes. Collaborative work with other organisations, such as charitable sectors and regulators, includes new ways of delivering campaigns to enhance public safety and reduce the cost and inconvenience that this crime creates for customers.