Electricity Substations - The Hidden Cost Of Metal Theft To A UK Utility

By Chris Dodds on 10th September, 2015

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Electricity Substations - The Hidden Cost Of Metal Theft To A UK Utility

What is the cost of #MetalTheft to the UK utilities and how can it be measured?

How widespread is #MetalTheft and how specifically does this crime impact upon substations?

What are the consequences?


Well I Never!

I have literally just left a meeting with Trace-In-Metal (TiM) where we were discussing supporting the UK utilities fight against copper theft at substations and thought I'd log into Twitter to catch the trends.

And guest what?......

Metal Theft

So while we were discussing the positive progress being made with respect to planned pilot installations at several sites, our local power utility Northern Powergrid, were again harnessing social media to offer cash rewards for information leading to a successful arrrest and charge relating to a new #MetalTheft incident.

In this first of a series of blog posts, T&D attempt to delve deep into a serious issue affecting power utilities in the UK and beyond our shores. We will keep the post grounded in empirical evidence using facts and stats issued by a UK DNO to highlight the scourge of #MetalTheft and the "wrecking-ball" effects on the power industry.

Today, we examine the #MetalTheft situation in Scotland. 

That said #MetalTheft has no boundary. This is not a Scottish issue. Future posts will concentrate on the epidemic of #MetalTheft sweeping across all the UK DNO networks.

As a crude rule where there is metal, there is #MetalTheft. Especially if the metal is copper.

From the North East to the North West the UK utilities are hit hard by copper crime. 


Underground, Overhead............ 

Whether it be underground cables or overhead lines - nothing is out of reach of the criminal unless an effective deterrent is deployed to fight the crime. We are confronting professional organised crime gangs, often instigated from "the inside" - these are not opportunist thieves.

Later, we will highlight the global menace of this cross-border international crime.



One consisent and persistent target for criminals is the copper earth tape used to provide Earthing & Lightning Protection to electricity substations.  

AN Wallis, the UK leading manufacturer of Earthing & Lightning Protection systems and substation copper earth tapes are supportive of the TiM "micro-dot" technology. Following a recent presentation by TiM at AN Wallis's Nottingham HQ Mark Rimmington (AN Wallis, Sales Director) contributed the following vote of confidence. 

“The problem relating to theft of high value metals has not gone away and despite efforts to put controls in place at scrap yards the criminals are still ahead of most authorities.

"Our experience at Wallis was simple, protect yourself because no one else will. We spent £30k on internal and external cameras which are monitored night and day 24/7. Since then 4 years ago our problems with theft are a thing of the past. However once copper or aluminium conductors are installed on a client’s property whether it be a football stadium, mobile phone antenna or substation either in remote areas or a city then they are on show and basically waiting to be stolen, there is little protection and no deterrent."

Smart water died a death but these microdots make more sense and could prove to be the answer for many owners / clients, DNO’s, Network Rail, O2 or otherwise. For our clients we are be happy to not only to name the copper tape for them as we do now but also attach / install the TiM microdots”

Pic : Bare Copper Earth Tape - copper earthing tapes coated with traceable microdots, patented by Trace-In-Metal, can be installed by UK DNO's to protect copper lightning protection systems on high voltage substations. Substations are the heartbeat of the UK electricity supply network distributing power to millions of our homes and businesses. Unless a credible #MetalTheft deterrent is in place, assets are exposed and at consideable risk.

Bare Copper Earth Tape

Substations are by their very nature difficult to secure, they are often set on the edges of communities, with very little in the way of physical or environmental security. CCTV and alarms are also problematic given the isolated locations and response times. Also, by their nature they involve assets that are seen as attractive to the thief, given the value and portability of the assets, such as copper based earthing systems. The ease at which they can be realised for monetary gain also adds to their attractiveness. Given these factors, it is not surprising that they often become crime scenes with massive on-costs, which have included loss of life.

Replacing copper with substitutes is a tactic which has some merit, although there will always be a compromise regarding performance. Trace-in-Metal, which is an innovative system of removing the value of the metal, by indelibly marking the metal with heat resistant coded microdots, works with all metals, although in the context of the substation, particularly well with copper. Rather than having to replace the existing copper, the microdots can be sprayed onto existing assets, thus making it extremely difficult for the thief to sell their ill-gotten gains.

Remarkably, with this system the deterrent carries through into the recycling ‘food chain’ and because the coded microdots will withstand very high temperatures and can still be traced back to the source of the crime, the risk of arrest and sanctions carry through to the receiver of the stolen metal. This also brings with it gains in forensic opportunities for police and law enforcement agencies, including financial investigations.

The UK recently passed legislation which strengthened licensing powers in relation to the recycling industry, and it is widely recognised that a common denominator driving metal theft globally, is the willingness of traders to take the risk for improved profit.

Trace-in-Metal turns the table, raising the risk for those still willing to buy stolen metal.


The Deterrent#MetalTheft - High Voltage Substations

Trace-in-Metal (TiM) indelibly marks copper with thousands of microdots, each of which carry a unique etched code that identifies the site or substation where the copper tape is installed. Each copper earthing tape is marked both overtly, using a UV reactive lacquer and covertly. Once copper has been marked it is virtually impossible to locate all the microdots or remove them. The resilience of the microdots is such that they survive very high temperatures and should the marked copper be stolen it will be traceable back to the soruce throughout the metals recycling "food chain". Deterrent signage accompanies each Trace-in-Metal installation, warning thieves that the copper is Trace-In-Metal marked.

Furthermore, the microdots can be hologrammed with UK DNO logo and the unique alpha-numeric code that is etched into the thousands of microdots at each installation, will locate the copper tape to specific points of installation, whether it be vulnerable rural connections or crime-black spots in urban areas.  

T&D and T-i-M would welcome the opportunity to meet and discuss potential applications for this type of anti-theft technology in the utility power sector.

Read more : #MetalTheft - Preventing The Theft Of Metals, Copper & Cables In The Electrical Power Industry


Pic : Demonetising The Crime. TiM provides a significant deterrent to thief and dealer by replacing the profit motive with a criminal sentence. Marking copper in this way not only raises the risk of arrest for the thief, but more importantly raises the risks for the dishonest scrap dealer who is still prepared to deal in stolen metal. Now that cash transactions have been taken out of the scrap metal business, the marking of metals with Trace-In-Metal microdots provides a means of following the stolen metal through the recycling "food chain". 

High Voltage Substations Copper Earth Tapes

Trace-In-Metal is a new and unique method of marking metals. It provides the honest, licensed scrap dealer with an easy way to detect stolen copper. It gives them the opportunity to refuse to buy stolen copper from thief or rogue trader. In essence, Trace-In-Metal removes the market for stolen copper in the utility power sector. Trace-In-Metal work with the legitimate traders, informing them when Trace-In-Metal is deployed in the area, and by equipping them with the low-tech means of identifying Trace-In-Metal marked metal. 

The real downtime costs of power outages are not simply measured. They are often unclear but also include wider consequential costs incurred to the electrical power industry.

Loss of reputation is financially immeasurable, that is one certain fact. 

ScottishPower Energy Networks have offered rewards of up to £10,000 for information leading to a criminal conviction of someone stealing metal from ScottishPower. Whilst rewarding the community for vigilance and reporting information to the utlities and local police forces, surely prevention is better than cure. Indeed, given the continued upward trend in metal theft such rewards while valiant efforts are not exactly crime-stopping measures. 

Here come some more shocking statistics outlining the damage to people, places and the wider community where no effective metal theft deterrent is in place.  

  • 1,435 substation incidents reported in 2 years
  • 11,000 hours spent on repairs and reinforcements
  • 140,000 homes at increased risk of damage
  • 50,000 homes without power for 30 minutes In November 2011
  • 1 death caused by attempted substation theft

Source : The Scotsman, Electricity Substation Metal Theft Reward Offered (October 2013). 


Reporting Suspicious Behaviour - Call Crimestoppers 0800 555 111Crimestoppers

Crimestoppers is a registered charity not part of any police force taking calls from the public who are fearful of calling the police but want to report crime. Calls are not recorded or traced. Personal details will be not asked for - it is what you know, not who you are, that is important. Crimestoppers anonymity promise has never been broken.


A Note On The SMD Act 2013

The Scrap Metal Dealers Act was introduced in England and Wales in October 2013, and improves the powers of the police and those involved in licensing scrap metal dealers. To deal in scrap, a trader, including mobile collectors now have to be licensed by their local authorities. The SMD Act also formalised the voluntary elements of Operation Tornado, in that traders have to check the identities of sellers and record such transactions, including vehicle registration numbers and details of the identification used. 

The Act also improved record keeping and places an onus on the trader to check the metals they are buying for marks that would identify previous owners. Metals must be retained in the form it was bought for 72 hours and records of all transactions must be kept. Importantly, cash transactions have been outlawed.

There is now a money trail!!!Metal Theft Scotland

The Scottish Government are still debating introducing similar legistation, and for the current Scottish position we recommend reading Metal Theft Scotland.

Under the new law, Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013, scrap dealers have to obtain a full license and carefully record each sale of metal to deter a ‘no questions asked’ culture.   

Pic : Government support for funding the Metal Theft Task Force has now come to an end since the introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013. British Transport Police Chief Constable, Paul Crowther has retained the national Metal Theft lead, with the BTP maintaining primacy in co-ordinating police operations aimed at reducing metal theft and disseminating intelligence on a cross border basis. The responsibility for carrying out proactive police operations have reverted back to individual police forces across England and Wales, and Police Scotland. 

Copper Cable Theft


Pic : According to Home Office figures metal theft costs the UK £220 million per year. The Home Office is the UK government's department for policing, crime, counter-terrorism and immigration.

Metal Theft - High Voltage Electricity Substations


Video Combatting Metal Theft - SP Energy Networks : SP Energy Networks launched its 'Copped It' advertising campaign late last year in response to the worrying number of thefts and attempted thefts of metal from electricity substations. Since January 2011 SP Energy Networks have experienced more than 1500 individual instances of copper theft, which have put hundreds of thousands of nearby residents in potential danger.

Referencing the public safety adverts of the 70's and 80's, the 'Copped It' campaign attempted to illustrate the very real safety threats that are caused by mindless criminal activity in and around its substations and power lines.

Metal Theft


ScottishPower Distribution Cables & Equipment Metal Theft - Guidebook

Category:  Earthing & Lightning Protection

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