Copper theft in Twin Cities continues

Thieves have begun to target Xcel Energy poles in response to rising metal prices.

Vacant and occupied homes, telephone wires and at least one University laboratory have all been victims of copper theft in the past. Now, Xcel Energy says thieves have found a new copper supply: ground wires.

Xcel Energy spokesman Tom Hoen said thieves are starting to target the copper ground wires attached to the company’s poles throughout Minneapolis.

The wires are on every Xcel Energy pole, Hoen said. The wire is there to direct electricity from lightning strikes into the ground.

“When you take the ground (wire) away, the pole absorbs the electricity from the bolt, which it can’t handle, and the equipment is damaged,” Hoen said.

Damaged equipment leads to power outages.

Thieves have been cutting the wire from the ground to as high as they can reach, which is usually about five or six feet, according to a city of Minneapolis press release.

To deter future thefts, Xcel employees are replacing the copper wiring with copper-clad wires as reports of stolen copper come in, Hoen said. The copper-clad wires are steel wires covered with a thin layer of copper.

“It has very little street value,” Hoen said.

Not an isolated problem

Other forms of copper and metal theft continue to be a problem in the Twin Cities and nationwide.

University police Deputy Chief Steve Johnson said there has been scrap metal stolen from the Tate Laboratory of Physics in the past year, but said he didn’t think copper theft was a big problem on campus.

He said thieves are going after metals, especially copper, because the price of the metals has gone up significantly in recent years.

Thieves will take the copper they have stolen and will go to scrap metal businesses and resell it for cash.

Jim Peters, a manager at American Iron, a scrap metal business in north Minneapolis, said the amount of money a seller can receive for a pound of copper varies depending on what kind of shape it’s in.

“The price of copper is all over the board,” he said. “Anywhere from $1 (per pound) for insulated wire to $3 for clean wire.”

“Clean” copper could be insulated wire that has been stripped of its insulation or it could be copper tubing, which is the target during many copper home burglaries.

But is advertising the price of copper contributing to the problem? Peters thinks so.

“There’s been so much damn copper theft going on,” Peters said. “And it’s almost like (the media) are encouraging the people by broadcasting how much it’s worth. Every thief and his mother is out stealing copper.”

Peters said he pays sellers by check for everything except aluminum cans. American Iron also requires a valid ID to make a sale.

He said all scrap metal businesses are supposed to track the people from whom they buy scrap.

For thieves looking to target copper owned by Xcel Energy, or any other telecommunications or energy supplier in Minnesota, they should consider the risks.

In November, three men coordinating a visit to Xcel Energy lines in a Minneapolis sewer system ended up in jail.

After the men were caught by police, they were charged with damaging energy transmission equipment, among other things.

The offense is a felony in Minnesota and, according to state law, those found guilty can be sentenced to as many as five years in prison and have to pay as much $10,000 in fines.