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Educational   17 April 2024


Put an end to copper wire theft with solar street lighting

urban road at night with solar street lights and office buildings in background


Cities across North America are grappling with a sustained spike in copper theft, the illegal practice of stripping the high-valued metal from substations, cell towers, street lights, construction sites, and other locations to sell to recycling centers for profit. In Los Angeles, the number of copper theft incidents has surged from just 500 to 700 cases five years ago to nearly 7,000 in 2023, with repair costs topping $17 million last year alone.


But the damage reaches far beyond the financial. Critical infrastructure—including street and area lighting—is frequently targeted by copper wire thieves, and when the flow of electricity to these devices is disrupted, it puts businesses, service providers, and the public at risk. While cities have tried a variety of approaches to stop the thefts, the one they’ve found most success with is cutting the cord themselves—switching their lights from grid to solar power.


The ripple effects of copper theft


utility pole with streetlight and many wires against a blue sky with clouds


On the surface, stealing copper wires might seem like a relatively small theft, however even small-scale, opportunistic thefts can have dire consequences. Last year, a 7-year-old girl was killed crossing a street in Las Vegas where the lights were out because the wires had been stolen. A similar incident happened just last month in St. Paul, MN,  and there are doubtless many other crashes and crimes that could have been prevented had the lights been operational.


Disrupting even a small part of the energy grid can have far-reaching impacts, affecting everything from traffic flows to telecommunications (including 911 services) to life-preserving equipment in hospitals and care homes—to say nothing of the economic impacts to businesses and public services forced to close.


Getting creative but getting nowhere


With so much at stake, and the price of copper creeping ever higher, cities are doing whatever they can to deter thieves and protect their infrastructure. In St. Paul, they’ve added tamper-proof screws to light pole bases and marked wires as city property (making them harder to resell). In L.A., they’ve installed alarms and cameras that notify the city when wires are cut.


In some places, municipalities have resorted to cement, concrete, and steel, effectively building fortresses around their electrical systems—only to have them smashed apart with sledgehammers or driven into with vehicles. As one official explained, “For everything we do, there’s an action in response and then we’re trying to deal with that response… It’s kind of a cat and mouse game.”


Solar solves the problem—and then some


divided two lane road with solar streetlight


Given the scale of the task and the time and cost associated with fortifying their infrastructure, some cities are taking a different tack: turning to solar-powered street lights, which don’t require a grid connection, and don’t have any copper wire to steal. By converting lights to solar, cities can solve the root of the problem, safeguarding against future thefts and replacement costs.


And while preventing copper theft may be the primary benefit, cities that make the switch to solar have discovered a host of other advantages, including reduced maintenance, longer replacement cycles, better reliability and resiliency, and of course, a deep cut to their utility bill, allowing them to free up funds for other projects and initiatives.


Bring the benefits of solar lighting to your community


Copper wire theft is not a problem without a solution. Although many municipalities continue to take a back foot approach, budgeting for loss and deploying crews every time there’s an incident, solar lighting offers a proactive alternative with cost savings and long-term benefits.


Want to learn more about solar lighting and how to advocate for it? Check out our article, or reach out to our team of trusted solar experts. We’re here to help!


Other news articles you might be interested in

ODOT’s Journey to Safer Roads with Sol

Leveraging the enhanced Investment Tax Credit (ITC) to reduce the cost of solar lighting

Using solar lighting to enhance safety and security at electric vehicle charging stations

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