There are bold and extremely risk-averse criminals on the loose in Butte, MT. A spokesperson for NorthWestern Energy confirmed the utility was recently the victim of LIVE power line thefts on two separate occasions! Yes, you read that correctly. Someone, unable to comprehend the hazards of cutting live wires, stole as much as 10 spans of electric lines while it was in service, leaving customers in the dark. And if the first death-defying feat was not enough, the thieves surfaced a week later in another community to steal more wire while it was providing electric service to customers in the Timber Butte neighborhood. I am going to resist any talk of stunt men and reality shows and simply say this gives new meaning to theft of service!

Joking aside, the thieves have taken over 400 pounds of copper filled wire leaving customers without power for several hours. Police are seeking help from the public in identifying the people involved. Anyone with information is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 406-782-7336. Callers may remain anonymous and could be eligible for a cash reward. Information may also be reported to Butte police Sgt. George Holland at 406-497-1167 or Butte Police Capt. Doug Conway at 406- 497-1123. 

While I regularly discuss smart grid legal issues, I never thought I would be giving a Crime Stoppers’ report. So how is this smart grid related? Let’s take a look at the definition of smart grid taken from NorthWestern Energy’s website:

“What is Smart Grid?
Smart Grid is an advanced, telecommunication/electric grid with sensors and smart devices linking all aspects of the current grid, from generator to consumer, and delivering enhanced operational capabilities that:

  • Provide CONSUMERS with the information and tools necessary to be responsive to electricity grid conditions, including price and reliability, through the use of electric devices and new services.
  • Ensure EFFICIENT use of the electric grid optimizing current assets while integrating emerging technologies such as renewable and storage devices.
  • Enhance RELIABILITY by protecting the grid from cyber attacks and other disruptions and also by increasing power quality and promoting early detection and self correcting of the grid.” (Emphasis mine.)

This crime highlights the need for smart grid development. An advanced grid with sensors and distribution automation could alert the utility that something is wrong, or in this case missing, before the thieves get to the scrap metal yard. Fortunately, NorthWestern Energy is currently a part of the Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project whose participants are part of a mix of public and private entities that will fund half of the $178 million project price tag. Specifically, NorthWestern Energy will invest $2.1 million to upgrade portions of its electric distribution system with smart grid technology. Thieves beware…the smart grid is coming.