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The UK’s infrastructure is being stolen

It’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’s precisely what copper thieves do every day. Thefts on Merseyside alone rose by 600 per cent this summer and as Andrew Lloyd, SP Energy Networks District Manager points out, “This is not a victimless crime and there’s a serious threat to the public as a result.” The Internet’s infrastructure is only one of the considerations.

The theft itself leaves both thieves and unsuspecting members of the public vulnerable to the risks of live electricity. Organisations responsible for earthing infrastructure don’t just have a duty to protect their employees and the community at large, they must also safeguard the people trying to rob them. Failure to do so can result in huge fines and, potentially, imprisonment, not to mention the loss of life if the worst happens.

However, technology is – quite ironically – unearthing the solution. New machine-to-machine (M2M) communications technology is alleviating the safety risks caused by copper theft by giving Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) the insight needed to act in a situation where knowledge is power.

The ramifications of copper theft are wide-reaching. The risk of electrocution goes beyond the thieves themselves, to service engineers who may unknowingly be exposed to compromised earthing infrastructure, and to curious passers-by who innocently stumble into hazardous settings.  Similarly, consumers can also be at risk if they’re unlucky enough to have a household appliance that trips at the same time that their local substation has had its earthing infrastructure 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, operators need to be doing everything in their power to limit the dangers associated with copper theft.

Secure but unsure

Until now, many in the industry have tried to tackle the issue by bolstering their security infrastructure. 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’s rarely obvious because, at face value, the substation will still be functioning as normal. Operators often don’t know the problem exists until it’s too late – typically when an engineer arrives on site, oblivious to the peril ahead.

Unfortunately, security solutions do little to help identify incidents of copper theft. The alarms may sound, but they don’t tell you what’s actually happened on site. And 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 if it has. On their own, security measures are not enough to mitigate the risks of serious safety breaches. What’s required is an ability to detect copper theft in real time and respond before lives are put at risk.

Safe and secure

M2M communication technology is transforming virtually every industry and the energy sector is no exception. Innovative technology is now able to protect and monitor service environments where safety and continuity are paramount. By monitoring copper infrastructure via the Internet of Things (IoT) DNOs can receive immediate notification of the disconnection, removal or disturbance of site grounding or other power infrastructure.

Using low-cost sensor technology to continuously monitor the inductive properties of copper earthing around a power substation site, significant changes are picked up instantly and interpreted using a series of algorithms. This then allows insightful alerts to be automatically sent to DNOs wirelessly via the cloud, allowing them to take informed action to address the problem. Armed with the intelligence to act, they can minimise the impact of copper theft on crucial power networks and ensure they put safety first.

With the EU Directive to ensure businesses use the Best Available Technology Not Entailing Excessive Cost (BATNEEC), it is vital that DNOs keep updated on the latest technology to ensure public safety. Those choosing not to adopt it on high-risk sites may find themselves exposed to later scrutiny should a safety breach occur and so it is vital that they act now with a focus on safety, rather than simply adopting a security-first approach.

After all, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Simon Nash is CEO of machine to machine specialist Cresatech