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Thefts of charging cables pose yet another obstacle to appeal of electric vehicles

DETROIT (AP) — Just before 2 a.m. on a chilly April night in Seattle, a Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck pulled up to an electric vehicle charging station at the edge of a shopping center parking lot.

Two men got out of the car, one of them wearing a head light. Security cameras showed them getting out bolt cutters. One of them cut several charging cables, while the other loaded them into the truck. Within two and a half minutes, they were gone.

The scene that night was part of a troubling pattern playing out across the country: thieves are targeting EV charging stations to steal cables that contain copper wire, which the price of copper is nearing all-time highs on global markets, giving criminals more cash to sell.

A Tesla Supercharger site is seen on Kipling Street in Houston on June 3, 2024. AP

Stolen cables often disable entire stations, forcing EV owners on the road to desperately search for a working charger – a predicament that can be frustrating and stressful for owners.

Faulty chargers are the latest stumbling block as U.S. automakers work hard to convert more Americans to electric vehicles amid widespread public anxiety about a shortage of charging stations. 4 in 10 U.S. adults Some people said they think it takes too long to charge an EV or don’t know if there are charging stations nearby.

If finding a charging station doesn’t necessarily mean finding a working cable, it gives skeptical buyers one more reason to stick with traditional gasoline or hybrid cars, at least for now.

Big American automakers are betting big that consumers will switch from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles as the world faces worsening climate change, and in response, they’re pouring billions of dollars into electric vehicles.

Stellantis plans to have 50% of its passenger cars be electric by the end of 2030. Ford had a goal of producing 2 million EVs per year by 2026, which would represent about 45% of its global sales, but has since put that goal on hold. General Motors, the most ambitious of the three, has committed to selling only electric passenger cars by the end of 2035.

Of course, whether these timelines come to fruition depends on automakers being able to convince potential EV buyers that charging will always be available while they’re on the road — and an uptick in cable theft is unlikely to bolster the automakers’ case.

Charging stations have been particularly hard hit by thieves hoping to sell the highly conductive copper wires in the cables at near record high prices. AP

Two years ago, a cable could be cut once every six months at one of its 968 charging stations with 4,400 plugs nationwide, according to Electrify America, which operates the second-largest network of direct current fast chargers in the U.S. By May of this year, that figure had reached 129, four more than in all of 2023. One Seattle station saw its cable cut six times in the past year, said Anthony Lamkin, vice president of operations for Electrify America.

“We’re enabling people to go to work, take their kids to school, go to medical appointments,” Lamkin said, “so when an entire station goes offline, it has a pretty big impact on our customers.”

Two other major EV charging companies, Flo and EVgo, have also reported an increase in thefts. Seattle-area charging stations are a frequent target, as are stations in Nevada, California, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Pennsylvania.

Charging stations operated by Tesla, which operates the largest fast-charging network in the U.S., have been attacked in Seattle, Oakland and Houston. Seattle police have reported seven incidents of cable theft from charging stations so far this year, as many as there were in all of 2023. Tesla charging stations have been thefted four times this year, compared with just one last year, according to Seattle police.

“Unfortunately, we are seeing an increase in the frequency of vandalism of public charging infrastructure in the Seattle metropolitan area,” EVgo said.

The company said it was working on repairing the disabled stations and finding a long-term solution while police investigated the theft.

The problem isn’t just limited to urban areas: In Sumner, Washington, a rural town south of Seattle, thieves have twice cut cables at Puget Sound Energy charging stations, and the company is working with police and property owners to secure the stations.

Houston police were unaware of the cable thefts until a month ago, when the cables were stolen from gas station chargers, and Sergeant Robert Carson, who heads the police metal theft unit, said the city has now recorded eight or nine such thefts.

Officials and charging company officials say similar thefts are on the rise across the U.S. as more charging stations are built. AP

In one case, a thief stole 18 of 19 cords at a Tesla charging station. Carson visited the station that day to assess the damage, and he says he had to turn away about 10 EVs that needed to charge in the first five minutes he was there.

In large cities like Houston, charging stations typically have so many plugs and cables that theft can be particularly damaging.

“They’re not just taking one,” Carson said, “and when they get hit, they get hit pretty hard.”

Roy Manuel, an Uber driver who normally charges his Tesla at the Houston charging station that was robbed, said he was worried the stolen cable would prevent him from charging.

“If your battery is really low, it’s going to make it really hard to drive your car,” he said. “If it’s low enough that you can’t get to another charger, you could be in trouble. You might need a tow truck.”

Charging companies say thieves are clearly targeting the cables’ copper. Copper hit a record high of about $5.20 a pound in late May, driven in part by increased demand from efforts to reduce carbon emissions by increasing the use of copper wiring in electric vehicles. Prices are up about 25% from a year ago, and many analysts expect further increases.

Charging companies say the cables don’t actually contain much copper, and what is there is difficult to extract. Carson estimates that criminals could make $15 to $20 per cable at a scrap yard.

“They’re not making a ton of money,” he said. “They’re not going anywhere on their yachts.”

Still, the more cables a thief can steal, the more money he could make: At $20 per cable, 20 stolen cables could fetch a potential value of $400.

The problem for charging companies is that replacing cables is much more expensive: In Minneapolis, where a cable was cut at a city-run charging station, replacing just one cable would cost about $1,000, said Joe Loughlin, a project manager for the Department of Public Works.

Charging companies are trying to fight back. Electrify America is installing more security cameras, and in Houston police are visiting recycling centers looking for stolen metal.

But it can often be hard for scrap yards to conclusively determine if metal came from a charging cable, because thieves often burn off the insulation and sell just the metal bundles.

The 1,700-member Recycling Materials Association has issued a scrap theft alert from law enforcement officials to help members be on the lookout for suspects and stolen goods.

Because charging stations are often located in remote corners of parking lots, Carson suggested more security cameras are needed.

Meanwhile, Electrify America said Seattle police are pursuing the thief seen on video, and Carson said Houston police are following up on leads in the Tesla thefts.

“We want to stop them,” he said, “and let the courts do what they’re supposed to do.”