In the past year the price has doubled to around $3.50 per pound.
"Well, the reality is that we've been dealing with this for a few years now, but it's just recently that we've seen a significant increase in the theft of copper. And that is, of course, driving up the prices," said Jana Schuering, communications director for Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). "Because of the spike and the rising cost of copper, we are now working closely with local law enforcement and businesses. We are taking a very pro-active approach."
Since 2005 PG&E has lost nearly $2.3 million statewide in copper theft. In Northern California $900,000 worth of metal has been stolen from PG&E since January. Over the past few months, however, the company has been able to recover $600,000 worth of product.
"We have been able to get back so much, because the specific wire we use is substantially thick and easily identifiable, and it's obvious it came from a utility," said Schuering. "But that's not always the case for other businesses."
In Oakley, police are combating the problem with stepped-up patrols around construction sites, schools and abandoned buildings. Arrests have been made and public awareness is increasing.
"We've seen some ups and downs with regard to copper thefts," said Police Chief Chris Thorsen. "It's been an issue ever since scrap metal prices went up. What we try to do is work with local contractors to lock up their stuff and we try to develop and maintain relationships with local businesses so that everyone is keeping an eye out."
Antioch police recently thwarted two would-be copper thieves when they accidentally came upon them during an unscheduled police training session in an empty downtown warehouse.
Antioch Mayor Don Freitas said Antioch is losing about $50,000 due to metal theft. The Cannery Lady statue had two brass plates stolen from it, and there have been thefts during the Highway 4 Bypass construction, he said.
"They literally are ripping these things off the foundation," said Freitas. "It's going to have a quality of life issue on signage in our city. It's impacting all of us. The problem is there wouldn't be a market if the salvage yard didn't pay for these things."
California legislation has been introduced, AB 1372, which would make the theft of copper materials punishable as grand theft. As the law currently stands, the theft of an item worth over $400 is a felony; less than $400 is a misdemeanor.
"There is also a movement afoot in the industry to put some kind of markings on these items to make them more identifiable," said Thorsen. "That way, when a cop comes upon something, they'll know whose it is."
Schuering said there are safety issues as well.
"If nothing else, we would like to get the word out that stealing copper wiring can be deadly," he said. "In some cases the wires can be live. We're trying to get the word out that for the money they are going to get, people are putting their lives at stake. They would do well to rethink their goal."