Pubdate: Fri, 04 Nov 2016
Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Copyright: 2016 Postmedia Network Inc.
Author: Nick Eagland
Page: A1


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
in-person inspections and have helped put an end to 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 when there is clear
evidence of theft. It also takes legal steps to collect payment on
stolen power.

And, Millard said, "99 per cent of the time" after police investigate,
the thief turns out to be an illegal cannabis grower.

The problem came to a head in 2010, when B.C. Hydro had 100
transformers fail prematurely and found it was providing more than 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," Millard added.

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 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 that information.

In the 2015-16 fiscal year, the inspection team looked at 1,103
grow-ops. But of those, only two per cent weren't paying their hydro

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 collected data only 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 that in the past, B.C. Hydro employees following up on a
tip would need to enter a property to read a meter, and thus could be
exposed to grow-op guard dogs and other dangers.

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 ran
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

overheating systems, including a case where a burning power pole
caused the temporary shutdown of a stretch of highway.

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 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."

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 

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."
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