Water companies could find themselves end up in hot water if they continue to adopt a passive approach to protecting their earthing infrastructure as the global incidence of copper theft increases.
It’s widely understood that copper theft presents significant human and operational risks for organisations whose services rely on their own electricity substations for power.
Failure to detect it can lead to loss of service, loss of money and, at the worst extremes, loss of life. The implications for water companies, who in addition to health and safety requirements also have heavy environmental responsibilities, could be catastrophic.
Yet despite this, many have no means of monitoring whether their earthing infrastructure has been compromised.
The approach will no longer hold water. Fortunately, new, affordable technology has emerged to prevent the downstream ramifications.
Copper theft: the rise and implications
Copper theft is a global epidemic that’s about to get worse. With China and the US poised to invest heavily in infrastructure, the price of copper is predicted to rise in line with increased demand. As its value soars, so will its appeal to thieves. Unfortunately, when copper is stolen, it’s rarely obvious. Substations typically continue to function as normal, all the while presenting significant safety risks to both the public and workers. Moreover, compromised earthing infrastructure can also – silently – lead to substation failure. The potential impact, beyond safety, is huge.
Whilst copper theft affects a multiplicity of industries, the challenges for water companies are nuanced. Whereas a substation failure in the electricity industry can bring a visible halt to the provision of outbound services – for example, the power-cut that prevents us from lighting or heating our homes – the water industry is reliant on its substations for crucial ‘inbound’ services like water treatment and waste management. Failure here poses an immediate – and costly – environmental risk. If, for example, a turbine at a sewage plant fails, companies may be unable to prevent grey water flowing into a river and polluting the environment. The penalties for environmental breaches are now huge. Just this week, for example, Thames Water has been fined a record £20m after pumping 1.9 billion litres of untreated sewage into the River Thames.
All of this leads to a baffling question: if the theft of copper can lead to a substation failure – and all its associated human and operational implications – why aren’t companies doing more to safeguard themselves? The majority of water companies have no means of knowing whether their earthing has been compromised. Despite earthing being a major part of their critical infrastructure, few companies actually monitor it. The approach is, at best, reckless. It’s also unnecessary.
Innovative new M2M communication technology is now able to protect and monitor service environments where safety and continuity are paramount. The technology provides immediate notification of the disconnection, removal or disturbance of site grounding or other power infrastructure – minimising the impact of copper theft. The new technology aligns with the EU Directive around Best Available Technology Not Entailing Excessive Cost (BATNEEC), meaning water companies should have little reason not to adopt it on high-risk sites. After all, the downstream implications of failing to safeguard their assets will be far more expensive.
It’s time for water companies to monitor their critical earthing infrastructure. Before the metaphorical dam bursts.
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