A metal scavenger picks up copper taken from an old air conditioner in New York City. Photograph by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
A metal scavenger picks up copper taken from an old air conditioner in New York City. Photograph by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The lights went out across the University of California at Berkeley campus the other day, in an incident that included an explosion and fire with two-story flames that injured four and sent one person to the hospital. The probable cause was the theft of a considerable amount of grounding wire from the campus electrical system. (When you do cutting edge physics and so forth, you need a pretty heavy-duty electrical system.)

But Megan, you will say, aren’t grounding wires, well, in the ground? Why yes they are. The thieves may have used heavy machinery to unearth the wire before they stole it. Nor is this the first time that something like this has happened; robbing power substations and similar installations seems to have become nearly epidemic.

There are two reasons: the price of copper is very high, and peoples’ incomes are not. In the middle of the last decade, prices for commodities shot to record or near-record levels, driven by ravenous demand from China’s rapidly growing economy. Copper, which had been trading at a reasonable 80 cents a pound in 2003, reached $4 a pound in 2006. The Great Recession abated prices somewhat, but they’re still around $3 a pound. That makes copper theft lucrative. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, claims for metal thefts (overwhelmingly for copper) from 2010 through 2012 rose by 36 percent from the previous three-year period.

Meanwhile, low-skilled workers don't have many other lucrative opportunities. During much of the Great Recession, copper thieves systematically stripped foreclosures and abandoned houses of their valuable wiring, but that source is running low. Rather than shift to some other line of business, some of the more organized gangs seem to have set their sights on live power lines. This seems completely insane, because it is.

As Justin Peters of Slate points out, if lunatics are going to attempt to steal copper wire while lethal current is running through them, there’s not much else you can do to deter them. I suspect that we’re going to end up with some sort of inspection regime for copper sales -- see, for example, this bill proposed in February -- requiring licensed scrap dealers to take down a lot of nosy information about who a copper seller is, and where he got that wire. But would it really be that hard to put copper wire on a boat or a truck and ship it out of the country? If we’ve reached a point where cannibalizing our own infrastructure makes financial sense for a significant number of people, there may not be much of anything we can do to stop them.