Gardai have seen a “spike” in the theft of copper wires and electricity cables this year with more than 40 break-ins at ESB substations, double that of previous years.
ESB Networks said there has been a shift in the targets of the gangs, from overhead cables to substations, with an estimated €100,000 worth of cabling stolen this year.
Senior officers said that while the crime spree isn't on the level of cable theft in 2011, they have documented a worrying increase and are appealing to the public to report suspicious activity, including at power stations.
Gardaí have joined with ESB Networks and Crimestoppers in launching an awareness campaign, pointing out the thefts can leave sub-stations in a dangerous condition and exposed to people, including children wandering into them, and can also result in power outages affecting communities.
Detectives say there is a combination of indigenous and foreign gangs involved in the crime, some of them specialising in cable theft.
“Stealing cable in dangerous circumstances takes some skill, so some of these people have experience, not always acquired in Ireland,” said Assistant Commissioner John O'Driscoll, head of Special Crime Operations.
In previous years, specialist gangs from the west Balkans were heavily involved in cable theft and one gang was put out of operation through concerted garda activity.
AC O'Driscoll said legal changes, prohibiting the sale of valuable metals in cash, would “certainly help”.
He said he sat on the 'Empact' expert group in Europol, the EU police agency, tasked with combating metal theft and said the crime was a priority for the year 2020 given the scale of it.
He said the international gangs specialising in the trade “move from one country to another”.
In June 2018, Europol said that a search operation across 12 states under Empact resulted in the seizure of almost 360,000kg of metal, worth almost €890,000.
This included 93,000kg of copper, worth an estimated €540,000, as well as 983 solar panels and 140 vehicles.
Paul Mulvaney of ESB Networks said there had been 43 break-ins at substations this year, double that of 2018 and 2017, marking a shift from the targeting of overhead cables.
He said that due to Garda activity in recent months break-ins had “dropped dramatically” and urged people to report suspect activity.