Utilities Unbundled Issue 19
BC Hydro is using smart meters to outsmart power-stealing marijuana farmers.
“Energy analytics process the data from smart meters, examining things like tamper alarms, energy imbalances and unusual voltage patterns, to generate prioritized cases to investigate.” – Elizabeth Fletcher, BC Hydro
Canada’s BC Hydro had a problem: thieves were stealing an estimated US$80m of electricity a year — a sizable loss for a utility that turns a US$500m profit annually.
Company executives knew where most of that power was going: into the lighting and cooling systems of the province’s thriving marijuana industry. A leading scholar at the University of the Fraser Valley characterized this industry as highly organized and worth US$4.2b — almost as large as BC Hydro itself.
It was a formidable challenge to identify where the theft was taking place, because:
- The illegal “grow ops” can’t be easily identified from outside. The growers often gut homes and fit them with ventilation systems and fluorescent lighting.
- Marijuana growers tap into the grid illegally to avoid attracting the authorities.
- BC Hydro has a huge service area, larger than the UK and France combined.
“There was a high degree of motivation, not only for our company, but also for the Utility Commission, to address this issue and find a solution on behalf of our customers,” says Elizabeth Fletcher, Deputy Director of BC Hydro’s Smart Metering & Infrastructure Program.
And they found it: smart meters. The same technology that the utility industry is touting as an energy conservation tool is now being used in British Columbia to stem theft.
Smart way to beat power thieves
Fletcher explains the company’s solution as a stool with three “legs”:
- Hardware — “Measurement devices on the grid allow us to compare the energy flowing into a feeder with the measured consumption of customers,” explains Fletcher. The system is now in the late stages of rollout, and the distribution metering is nearing the end of field trials.
- Software — “Energy analytics process the data from smart meters, examining things like tamper alarms, energy imbalances and unusual voltage patterns, to generate prioritized cases to investigate.” BC Hydro is now implementing the third phase of energy analytics, directed at energy balancing and creating a Hadoop data lake, which cheaply stores and provides access to the massive amounts of data generated by the smart meters and distribution system devices.
- Field investigators — Field investigators troubleshoot areas of interest and locate where theft is taking place. The investigators have already begun acting on leads and shutting down illegal connections.
In the short term, the US$750m project will cost customer’s money. But Fletcher says the rate impact will reduce over time: “Ultimately, it will serve to lower customer rates as the benefits of all of the technologies implemented are fully realized.”
Getting off the grid
The technology already seems to be discouraging some power thieves. “Energy thieves know that we have begun to implement this technology. Our information indicates that theft has already dropped substantially from the levels calculated several years ago to the position today,” Fletcher says. It appears these growers are “beginning to use energy-efficient lighting, self-generate, leave the province or find legal avenues to produce their product.”
BC Hydro had estimated that at peak effectiveness, the theft deterrence program might decrease energy losses by 75%. Now, Fletcher says, “If our initial data is correct, we are having a much greater impact than we thought possible, especially at this stage of deployment.”
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