As millions of Americans kiss their old-fashioned electricity meters goodbye, there is a range of reactions. Well, actually, more like two. There is plenty of consumer oblivion about advanced meter infrastructure and a whole lot of confusion and anger from customers who have seen their bills spike after their smart meters have been installed.
There is also another disgruntled group of people on the horizon. For the folks who have been defrauding their utility and stealing their electricity by hacking traditional electric meters, the new digital hardware will not be welcome.
It has been rumored that the reason that Italian utility Enel S.p.A. installed some 30 million smart meters was not primarily to advance smart grid, but to reign in power theft. Enel saves about 500 million Euros a year through automated features created by the meters so the official motive is strong. Still, the existence of the rumor says something. Chronic power outages in Indian cities are blamed on power theft.
While the U.S. does not have the widespread electricity theft issues that some other countries such as Mexico, Brazil or India have, it still costs the U.S. an estimated $6 billion every year.
So for the crafty, handy (but not tech-savvy) criminals out there, time might be running out to try to take what’s not yours for free.
(Note: Greentech Media does not endorse actually hacking your electric meter, or any illegal activity, for that matter.)
One of the tried and true ways to tamper with the meter over the years is to put a magnet on each side to slow it down. The internet is rife with examples, including a step-by-step video.
If you’re criminally minded with a dangerous streak, you may have taken note of people who steal their power directly from transformers. Beware: news reports are filled with stories of those who have died in the pursuit of free power, as well as people who have lived only to be prosecuted. While reporting a power theft story, one local Fox station practically gives a do-it-yourself, like one man did, with jumper cables.
The other ways in which people have been stealing power are endless, from sand in the meters to slow down the wheel to turning the entire meter upside down. The trick is to know when the meter reader is coming to turn it right side up.
Another popular fix is to drill a hole in the bottom of the meter and stick a pin in to stop the wheel all together. But as one “anonymous coward” posted on a web forum, “we did this for over a year until we got caught, then it was the Spanish Inquisition and cost a fortune in penalties, etc.” Lesson learned.
While advanced meters will undoubtedly deter some anonymous cowards from tampering with their meters for a few months of lowered electric bills, the larger issue of power theft will not be solved by a smart grid, rather there will be a shift in who is equipped to do the hacking.
“It’s much like a new computer or security system,” said Lowell Rust, the director of product marketing for electricity metering firm Itron. “The people who make a living at penetration will have to keep up.”
However, like computer and security systems, it is more likely that the makers of the technology will have to stay one step ahead of hackers to truly put a dent in energy theft.