New B.C. Hydro devices saves millions of dollars from cannabis-growing power thieves
Smart meters and high-tech devices on hydro poles have left cannabis-growing power thieves little choice but to pay their electricity bills.
In 2011, field inspections found that 62 per cent of grow-ops identified by B.C. Hydro were stealing power from the grid. But B.C.’s smart-meter system, installed the same year, and other new devices have replaced the Crown corporation’s reliance on tips and risky human inspections and have helped put an end tens of millions of dollars in losses each year.
John Millard, manager of revenue assurance, said B.C. Hydro isn’t involved in enforcement but will disconnect power from anywhere there is clear evidence of theft. It also takes legal steps to collect payment on stolen power.
And “99 per cent of the time” after police investigate, the thief turns out to be an illegal cannabis grower, Millard said.
The problem came to a head in 2010, when B.C. Hydro had 100 transformers fail prematurely and found it was providing over 850 gigawatt-hours of power that wasn’t being paid for. That equated to roughly $100 million annually in lost power, Millard said.
“It’s a hidden cost that customers don’t really see directly, when people steal electricity,” Millard said. “It gets buried in the cost of energy and our line losses, and all the other customers pay for that.”
The thefts also pose serious safety issues for employees, customers and emergency responders.
So, in 2011, B.C. Hydro launched a three-part plan to thwart thieves: Adding metering on the grid to keep tabs on the amount of power flowing to localized areas, using analytical tools to combine that data with smart-meter data, and sending out an enhanced field investigation team to act on this information.
In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, the inspection team looked at 1,103 grow-ops. But of those, only two per cent were not paying their hydro bill.
About two dozen B.C. Hydro staff, working with ex-law enforcement personnel and contractors, now run a complex system that monitors power flow based on an “inventory balance” approach, similar to how a retailer continually compares receipts to shipments and to sales.
“We needed a way to know where our electrons were going, where those losses were and where to send our field teams,” Millard said.
Historically, B.C. Hydro only collected data at a small number of locations, such as major substations, which it would compare with old-style meters then in use in homes and businesses.
Millard said in past B.C. Hydro employees following up on a tip would need to enter a property to read a meter and so would be exposed to safety risks — including grow-op guard dogs.
Now, B.C. Hydro has permanently installed 4,000 “check meters” — TGI Raptor 3 sensors manufactured by Vancouver firm Awesense Solutions. These are hooked directly to overhead lines so staff can wirelessly and securely pinpoint where power is going. An additional 1,000 Raptors are moved around as needed.
B.C. Hydro uses more than 10,000 measurement points on the grid to concentrate inspections in areas where there are losses.
And some of these losses were huge.
The average B.C. home uses around 30 kilowatt hours of power a day but grow-up thieves have been caught draining 300 to 3,000 kWh a day with their huge grow lights, Millard said.
He’s seen “very sophisticated and electrically dangerous” thefts during his decade with B.C. Hydro, including one where thieves had run 14,000 volts down a cable fed through a hollowed-out power pole.
“If somebody tried to climb that with spiked boots or touched it, there’s a risk of electrocution for sure,” he said. “That could very easily kill them — or an unsuspecting member of the public.”
Millard said Hydro crews have seen fires caused by overloaded or overheating systems, including a case where a burning power pole led to a stretch of highway being temporarily shut down.
And B.C. Hydro also gets calls from neighbours complaining about power-quality issues, such as flickering lights or appliances not working properly.
Millard said it’s difficult to predict how federal legalization of marijuana would affect the situation, but he believes that the systems now in place will work well to prevent growers from taking big safety and business risks to save cash.
Staff Sgt. Darin Sheppard of the RCMP’s drug-operations support unit believes B.C. Hydro’s new technology works well.
“Now they have — perhaps not less grows — but more people just paying for the power outright, knowing that they’ll be exposing themselves to enforcement activities by the police if they try stealing it,” he said.
Sheppard said the prevention of “hydro bypasses” plays a vital role in public safety.
“You have people who don’t have any training or background in electricity and they’re rewiring a house essentially, just to steal the power,” he said. “A lot of hydro bypasses have traditionally been detected due to fires as well as B.C. Hydro reporting the theft so, yeah, they are very dangerous.”
B.C. Hydro spokeswoman Mora Scott said the work of Millard and his team has helped to reduce power theft by 80 per cent.
“Electricity theft poses significant danger to B.C. Hydro employees, first responders and the public,” she said. “It also damages our equipment, causes power outages and costs customers money. Smart meters and the new equipment we have on our system have helped us put a stop to this.”