Copper Theft: Are EV Charging Stations the Next Target?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Nov 04, 2011

I was attending a conference in San Diego recently, and an executive of a copper trade association took me aside. “They’re hijacking whole truckloads of copper wiring worth $250,000,” he said. “It’s really well organized.

The fact that a single trailer load of copper can be worth a quarter of a million dollars is why the theft of it has become a huge business, costing the nation as much as a billion a year, according to the Department of Energy. Copper, worth about $3.50 a pound as scrap metal (up from $1.70 in 2009), is a really good conductor, which is why it’s used extensively to wire the electrical grid. And it’s why Eugene, Oregon’s power utility issued the following bulletin: “Not only is stealing wire from the power system illegal, it can be a deadly decision. There have been a number of cases locally and nationally resulting in serious injury or death by electrocution while vandalizing electric substations. Do you think that thieves would think twice before cutting into high-voltage electric lines? Think again, as this video proves:

Now you might be getting an inkling about why metal theft merits attention on the Car Talk auto blog. The average car contains about 60 pounds of copper wiring, according to Mary C. Boland, executive director of the American Copper Council. “Copper theft is a huge issue everywhere,” she told me, after confirming that those big wire hijacking cases have occurred. “In the Midwest, they’re out there risking their lives to cut the electrical cables. I’m sure that car chargers will not be immune from that.” Indeed, people who will chop into a live high-tension cable wouldn't hesitate to apply the bolt cutters to an EV station. Cars have been metal theft targets before, because catalytic converters have frequently been removed for the small amounts of platinum, palladium, and rhodium contained in them.

Let’s be clear: There is not yet an epidemic of metal thieves stealing copper-based EV charging cables—the wiring that looks something like a gas station hose and runs from the car to the charger. There are still very few such public chargers out there, and only a handful of the 480-volt DC fast chargers that carry more current and thus have heavier cables—with a lot more copper! But even in these early days it's happening.  Tom Dowling, the volunteer charging infrastructure manager for the Electric Auto Association, says he's heard of 15 to 20 EV cables "chopped off and stolen" recently, mostly in northern California. "It's not a widespread problem yet, but it could become one," he said.

This story is more in the nature of a cautionary tale, warning of what could happen if charging companies don’t take steps to protect their cables. If a group that includes organized gangs and solitary drug addicts is willing to break into electric substations, a lonely EV station has to present a tempting target.

First, let’s see just how brazen these guys are, starting with the video below. Here’s a bulletin from this week on the site, maintained by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI): “Sometime between 1700 hrs on Wednesday 11/02/2011 and 0600 hrs on Thursday, 11/03/2011 approximately 300 feet of 2/0 copper welding cable was stolen from a Strauss Industries Truck while it was parked at a residence located on Veterans Boulevard near New Cumberland, WV.”

Darn, that was today, as I'm writing this. Some poor sap who had 300 feet of copper welding cable yesterday doesn’t have it now. He’s out $750, which actually makes him lucky because if it had been the wiring in his house he’d be out a lot more. On Wednesday, according to the same source, someone in Rolla, Missouri stole “200 ft of 100 pair telecommunications wire and 315 ft of #6 copper wire.”

This is a national scandal. As Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported, a wave of copper theft in Dallas “might not sound as threatening as bank heists or murder sprees, yet the scope and frequency of the crime [threatens] a far more important target—the wiring and plumbing that makes up the central nervous system of the city itself.”

The FBI reports that copper thieves "are threatening U.S. critical infrastructure by targeting electrical sub-stations, cellular towers, telephone land lines, railroads, water wells, construction sites, and vacant homes for lucrative profits.” According to the bureau, the high price of copper—fueled by demand in developing nations—is “creating a robust international copper trade.”

Kevin Lawlor, a spokesman for ISRI, which represents scrap dealers, told me the theft problem has gotten worse because “copper is pretty expensive right now, and the economy is such that people have a desire to commit these crimes.” He said ISRI works with the police and recyclers “trying to put laws into place to curb metal theft.” One way they do that is by requiring people turning in metal to present valid ID so any stolen material can be traced back to them.

Another way of fighting back, which would work for EV chargers, is to stamp the owner’s name all over the part. A hunk of copper with “AT&T” printed all over it is harder to fence. I haven’t seen anything like that done with charging cables, but it would be easy enough to do.

The industry is definitely thinking about this. Don Karner, president of charging company ECOtality North America, told me that its first thought is to ensure that property owners, or "charger hosts" are able to have some authority for and take responsibility for safeguarding the equipment. "We want somebody looking after the hardware on a daily basis," he said. Further, ECOtality is writing "Electric Vehicle Cable--Do Not Salvage" all over the wiring. "If salvage companies see a cable like that, it's been stolen," he said. Of course, thieves can toss the cables in a burn barrel and reduce their load to pure copper, but that's a hassle for them.

I like the idea of cables that retract into the charger and lock in place, requiring a smart card to release the plug. Unfortunately, retractable EV charging cables haven't worn well in previous installations. Karner of ECOtality said his company tried retractable cables on fast chargers in the late 1990s, but it was "a very expensive alternative, requiring more maintenance." It's latest chargers don't go that way. I’ve also written extensively about inductive charging, which does away with the wiring entirely and transmits the electrical signal several inches from apparatus buried under the pavement. Right now there’s a 10-percent power loss with such charging, but those rates are expected to improve. Another solution would be having EV drivers carry their own cables that plug into a socket at the station, a method that's already widespread in Europe (where several different charging systems are in place). But Dowling thinks that will be a hassle. "It's like carrying a gasoline hose around with you--your clothes will get dirty, for one thing," he said. Could the cables be stored in a locked cabinet next to the station? Sure, but locked cabinets are just invitations to determined thieves.

And here are some practical metal theft prevention tips from the commercial real estate trade

  • Improve exterior lighting, especially in high-risk areas. Use motion sensors to turn the lights on and inspect them regularly to make sure they work;

  • Cut back greenery and review outdoor lighting to prevent areas where thieves can operate unobserved. Security cameras can be valuable, but only if they’re monitored. You’d want someone to set off a loud alarm if anyone started monkeying with the EV cables;

  • If possible, “fence your property and secure all gates when the facility is closed. Post ‘No Tresspassing’ signs.” That advice is of limited utility here, because these are public stations and the public has to be able to get to them.

Yet another idea is to get all valuable metals out of EV charging cables, but I’m not sure that’s possible for companies that also have to meet all existing UL safety standards. Karner said aluminum-based cables are possible, but they'd be both thicker and stiffer. And metal thieves like aluminum, too. There's no easy answer here, but we’ve got some smart people working on EV charging. They're working with a ticking clock--the time to secure these renewable energy lifelines is now.

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