INFRASTRUCTUREGermany: Copper Theft Hits Critical Infrastructure, Business

Published 27 September 2023

Metal theft by criminal gangs in Germany is alarming the public and businesses. This year, the newspaper found, copper thefts have already led to 2,644 train delays, totaling well over 700 hours. The disruptions will worsen as copper prices rise.

German railway operator Deutsche Bahn has been struggling for quite a while now. Decades of neglect have left the state-owned company’s infrastructure and rolling stock in tatters and its finances in disarray.

Deutsche Bahn’s precarious funding is now being additionally burdened by a rising number of copper thefts that in 2022 alone cost the company about €6.6 million ($7 million), according to German business daily Handelsblatt. This year, the newspaper found, copper thefts have already led to 2,644 train delays, totaling well over 700 hours.

As criminals destroy cable ducts to get hold of the valuable base metal, supply chains are disrupted and hundreds of thousands of passengers are getting increasingly frustrated about Deutsche Bahn’s unpunctuality.

But it’s not only the German national railway company that suffers from the rising theft of so-called nonferrous metals like copper. Copper wiring and pipes are stolen from construction sites. Even church roofs that are often laid with copper plates are no longer safe from acts of criminal wrongdoing.

The most spectacular copper theft of all time in Germany, though, happened at copper manufacturing and recycling company Aurubis in August. The Hamburg-based company disclosed it was a victim of a major theft involving nearly $200 million (€188.7 million) worth of the base metal.

Copper: Critical Raw Material in Short Supply
After the news of the theft broke at the end of August, Aurubis, Europe’s largest copper producer, said it suspected a criminal gang had stolen some of its metal. The company disclosed that due to “considerable discrepancies” in its inventories it would miss its full-year profit guidance.

Copper is a base metal that is used in multiple appliances and applications due to its good electrical conductivity. It’s become even more critical in the transformation of entire industries toward carbon neutrality, says Joachim Berlenbach, founder and CEO of the Earth Resource Investment (ERI) consultancy. He added that he has no doubt that “the demand for copper will increase massively in the future.”

Think of a wind turbine generating electricity by spinning a copper coil through a magnetic field. For each megawatt of wind energy, you need five to nine tons of copper, depending on whether the turbine is onshore or offshore,” Berlenbach told DW.

Prices will continue to rise, he said, because “we simply don’t have enough of this critical raw material for achieving our decarbonization goals. This is often ignored by advocates of the energy transition.”