With the price of copper soaring to above $4 per pound, electric utilities are increasingly becoming targets for thieves and need to protect themselves. In the remote region of rural New Mexico, Socorro Electric Cooperative has been robbed repeatedly, which cuts into its profitability and reliability.

On several occasions, thieves have broken into the coop's transformer yard and storage facility to steal copper. However, the thieves did not stop there; they also slipped bundles of copper wiring right off of work trucks and even tried to rip it off of utility poles.

Fortunately, thieves have not attempted to sneak into the cooperative's substations to steal copper. Oftentimes, when thefts occur in other utilities' substations, the thieves go in, but they never come out, because of electrocution. While one of the thefts resulted in Socorro having an outage, luckily no one was injured.

The copper robberies, which occurred in two areas within the coop's 11,000-sq-mile service territory, could have resulted in other adverse consequences. The improper removal of copper wiring could lead to improper grounding on the system. During lightning season, Socorro depends on the grounding to take any overvoltage to ground. Without proper grounding, it could inflict damage to line equipment. In addition, missing copper and copper wiring dangling from a pole could lead to an outage during a wind storm.

To prevent these problems from occurring, the linemen tried to replace the stolen copper ground wire as soon as possible with new copper. What happened, however, was the thieves quickly returned and stole the copper all over again.

Fool's Gold

After repeated robberies, Socorro decided to take action. At a meeting in New Orleans, the utility learned about a new type of cabling not made from solid copper but from copper-clad steel (CCS). Because it is not manufactured from solid copper, it is more of a deterrent to thieves.

The GroundSmart CCS solution from CommScope Inc. provides a safe and highly reliable alternative to the use of solid and stranded copper for grounding applications. The GroundSmart solution is comprised of an electrical conductor that has an outer sleeve of copper metallurgically bonded to a solid steel core.

The steel cabling, clad with copper, has the same grounding protection as solid copper, but it costs less both in the short and long terms. GroundSmart CCS conducts ground faults like copper when sized appropriately, connects like copper and corrodes no differently than copper wiring.

Making the Switch

After Socorro was hit with yet another robbery, the utility called CommScope and asked the vendor to overnight a sample of its GroundSmart solution. The cooperative then dispatched its linemen to replace the stolen copper with GroundSmart.

To install the GroundSmart solution, the two-person line crew drove 50 miles to the site of the robbery. After arriving at the pole, they used a copper crimper to crimp the section of copper ground wire that had been cut. They then used a connector to adhere the new GroundSmart wire to the existing ground wire and stapled it to the pole.

One major advantage of GroundSmart is that, unlike other copper alternative solutions, the cabling is as easy to work with and install as copper. In fact, Ricky Williams, line foreman for Socorro Electric Cooperative, said he was surprised at how comparable the GroundSmart solution was to pure copper. Because it was so bendable and equal in weight, the linemen could not tell the difference, he said. In fact, some of the linemen thought they were working with actual copper.

The single biggest benefit, however, is that GroundSmart is virtually worthless to thieves. When thieves returned to steal copper from Socorro's remote lines, they quickly learned something was wrong. After trying to remove the wiring from five poles, they figured out the new cabling was not pure copper but instead CCS. As a result, the thieves vanished without stealing the new cabling.

Testing the Technology

After installing the GroundSmart solution in one of its locations, the coop opted to use it for a beta project. The utility is in the process of building a new pad-mounted substation, and the field technicians are using only GroundSmart rather than pure copper ground wiring for the project.

To help the field crews perform the installation, Comm-Scope visited the job site and trained the linemen on installation techniques. The company also instructed field crews on how to make the connections and perform ground resistance readings.

The field crews performed the readings before and after the equipment had been energized. Socorro plans to dig up the connections in the future to ensure nothing has been compromised. If it has not been, the utility plans to install more of the GroundSmart solution from CommScope in the future.

The utility has already begun replacing the stolen copper ground wires with GroundSmart and recently has begun using the technology on transformer jumpers as well. Now that it has experience installing this solution, the utility plans to integrate the material into its planning process for new construction.

By taking a proactive approach to copper theft, Socorro is improving the reliability of its system while cutting costs. As a result, the frequent robberies have been deterred, and the thieves are looking for the valuable commodity outside of the utility's service territory.

Richard Lopez (richard@socorroelectric.com) is an engineering and operations manager for Socorro Electric Cooperative in Socorro, New Mexico. He has been with the rural electric coop system for 30 years and spent two years in Central America and South America. He also has worked more than 20 years in international assistance and has frequently volunteered for disaster areas, most recently in Haiti shortly after the earthquake. In his position, he works closely in the field with linemen on projects and substation work.

Editor's note: To view a video of the Socorro Electric Cooperative crews installing the GroundSmart copper-clad-steel solution, visit www.youtube.com/commscope#p/u/0/V6on0CHVDHs.

Copper Theft Plagues Utilities Nationwide

Two years ago, Electrical Safety Foundation International surveyed more than 600 utilities about copper theft. Here are a few of the association's findings:

  • U.S. utilities reported about $60 million in losses and 450,000 minutes of outage time annually because of theft.
  • About 10% of the copper thefts resulted in fatalities. Utilities reported 35 to 50 deaths or injuries associated with copper theft every year.
  • More than 68% of utilities experienced copper theft over a 12-month period.
  • More than 50,000 copper thefts occur each year, of which about 7,919 occur on energized equipment.
  • More than 81% of the respondents said they were extremely concerned about copper theft.
  • More than 86% of the respondents have a system in place to track the incidences of copper theft.
  • More than 75% of the respondents changed their storage or security procedures to prevent copper theft.
  • Utilities are spending more than $26,000 each year to address the copper theft problem.

For a full report, visit http://esfi.org/index.cfm/cd/FAP/cdid/10983/pid/10272.

Companies mentioned:

CommScope www.commscope.com

Socorro Electric Cooperative www.socorroelectric.com