British Columbia

BC Hydro uses new technology to stop theft, spot grow-ops

BC Hydro is using new metering technology to better identify sources of electricity theft — almost all of which the utility says stem from marijuana grow-ops.

Company says 'almost all' power theft is by large-scale marijuana growing operations

BC Hydro says its new metering technology has drastically reduced power theft by marijuana grow operations. (CBC)

BC Hydro is using new metering technology to better identify sources of electricity theft — almost all of which the utility says stem from marijuana grow-ops.

About 4,000 TGI Raptor 3 sensors, designed by Vancouver tech firm Awesense Inc., have been installed on BC Hydro's power distribution grid, recording precise measurements of currents flowing through transmission lines.

Those measurements are then compared against readings from in-home smart meters. Discrepancies can then be used to pinpoint locations where power is being siphoned off of the grid.

And more often than not, Hydro says, the source of the power loss is a grow-op.

A BC Hydro employee holds up one of the new current monitoring units now installed around the province. (BC Hydro)

"Almost all of the large-scale theft we've seen has been related to marijuana grow operations," said John Millard, manager of revenue assurance at BC Hydro.

"These are not small operations. Some of them often use as much power as a whole residential street."

Result of a 5-year program

The new technology is the result of a theft reduction program that BC Hydro began in 2011 — which included the installation of smart meters in homes around the province.

Millard said Hydro noticed an increase in power theft by grow-ops in the province in 2010, and needed a more reliable method to determine the sources of the theft, rather than relying on tips and manual inspections.

"We estimated that theft had increased to 850 gigawatt hours per year," Millard said. That increase represented the power used by roughly 77,000 BC homes.

Installation of the meters was completed in 2015, and Millard says they've been very effective.

Prior to 2010, Hydro said that approximately 60 per cent of grow-ops stole power. Now, Millard says that number is down to five per cent.

Data from the new transmission meters is compared against data from in-home smart meters to determine where power theft is occuring.

Safety the main concern, not law enforcement

While Hydro does report suspected large-scale power theft to police, Millard emphasized that the company is primarily concerned with safety — both for its employees and the public.

Millard said that, in most cases, power thieves splice into secondary lines in homes, and sometimes directly into high-voltage overhead power lines routed into stolen transformers. These ad-hoc modifications to the grid can pose a risk of electrocution and potentially cause fires.

"When that system is compromised and our employees don't know that that's happened, they could be exposed to that," Millard said.

Millard said BC Hydro hasn't had any serious incidents, but there have been a number of fires and close calls over the years.

"It's a pretty serious issue," he said. "Those thefts are 10 to 100 times larger than a normal home's consumption."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this article stated 850 gigawatt hours a year is equivalent to the amount of electricity used by about 800 average B.C. homes. That number is actually equal to the amount of electricity used by 77,000 average B.C. homes.
    Nov 08, 2016 10:52 AM PT