/ 15 July 2011

Industry is biggest power thief

Contrary to popular belief, it is not the poor residents of Soweto who steal the most electricity in South Africa -- it is commercial enterprises.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not the poor residents of Soweto who steal the most electricity in South Africa — it is commercial enterprises.

Electricity worth about R792-million is stolen by predominantly mid-size businesses, roughly two- thirds of the R1.2-billion of power stolen from Eskom each year.

According to Maboe Maphaka, senior manager for energy trading at Eskom, audits done in recent years, identify mid-size businesses as the most common electricity thieves.

But, he said, electricity theft “occurs across the board”, from individuals to large industries. “We are on the look-out everywhere.”

Eskom raised the ire of the agricultural industry earlier this year when it fingered agribusiness as the chief culprit in electricity theft but Maphaka clarified this. He said that the largest amount of metering tampering by large power users occurred in the agribusiness sector. “About 48% of meter tampering is by agribusiness,” he said.

But ultimately theft of power by agribusiness was negligible as it used only 3% of the total energy sold by Eskom.

“This does not mean that we are treating this problem as insignificant,” he said. “Problems start small but tend to grow and we want to ensure this does not happen.” After agribusiness, meter tampering was most common at other commercial enterprises.

Maphaka said meter tampering, referred to any changes made to a meter to ensure that it did not reflect accurately the amount of power used. One of the ways in which people stole power. Customers either disconnected meters so that they did not record the amount of power used or slowed down the mechanism that does the recording.

In other instances of commercial theft, he said, infrastructure for power was laid down, but the area or building was not metered and businesses used power without paying for it.

Media reports and efforts to curb electricity theft have drawn attention to theft by residential consumers and Eskom has had its share of run-ins with angry communities over efforts to prevent illegal connections. Earlier this month Eskom employees were threatened by angry residents of Chiawelo in Soweto when they tried to fix 115 tamper-proof meters, installed in the area in 2007, which had been vandalised.

Eskom’s technicians had to flee the area under police escort after protesters apparently became violent and set fire to property. In a statement, Eskom said it was forced to switch off a circuit to Chiawelo because of security concerns, cutting off power to hundreds of people.

Maphaka said that another reason the theft of electricity by residential consumers received so much attention was because of the danger that illegal connections posed in residential areas.

“There is also a safety component — theft often comes with the danger of electrocution,” he said. “From a revenue loss perspective it can seem insignificant, but from a safety perspective it is very serious.”

Electricity theft in residential areas was often more visible, particularly when it came to illegal connections. Often electricity theft by businesses was not as easily detected.

Maphaka said there were ways in which Eskom could detect electricity theft, including by checking the power supplied to an area against the revenue received.

It also cross-checked billing records, comparing the average power consumption of commercial customers in an area. Should one customer appear to be using an inordinately low amount of power it could potentially point to a problem, he said.

Once theft by a commercial enterprise had been identified it was often relatively easy to deal with, he said. But in a residential setting, although it might be easier to identify, resolving the problem often required dealing with a community and their needs and could be “more difficult”.

Prosecuting consumers for electricity theft was difficult, he said, because there was no legislation in place to deal with electricity theft.

“In the past we have never taken people to court but now we are talking to the [National Prosecuting Authority] and police about finding ways to prosecute for theft,” he said.

There were three test cases being prepared for the courts, he said, in which Eskom was trying to take legal action against electricity thieves. He refused to give any further details.

Tamper-proof meters on way
Eskom is prioritising the roll-out of tamper-proof meters, known as “split meters”, in residential areas.

In its annual report the utility noted that these devices use two-way communication to detect tampering.

In Soweto, however, it said the cost of split meters had increased due to the need for secure housing for the meters to prevent tampering or bypassing.

By the 2014-2015 financial year, however, split meters will be incorporated in its normal business.

According to Maboe Maphaka, senior manager for energy trading at Eskom, meter tampering in business is not as common as it is in residential areas, however the losses to Eskom are far greater when a business does not pay for its power.

The theft of power by one large power user is equivalent to the power used by 1 000 residential customers he said.