THIEVES are putting their own lives, and those of firefighters, at risk in Devon by stealing electricity to power electricity-hungry cannabis farms or bitcoin ‘mines’ or to cope with the cost of living.

Recently a South Devon cannabis farm diverted the power supply to feed high-wattage lights used to grow the plants.

Devon and Cornwall police and crime commissioner Alison Hernandez has appealed for vigilance.

She said: ‘It was interesting to see that all that cannabis had been grown in a building on a busy street with people working all around.

‘I did notice what looked like two workmen trying to open the electricity box in the street, and I did report it to the police at that time. The crooks will have diverted the main electricity supply, and it is one of the things we should be looking out for.

‘These people aren’t just getting a wire and plugging it in, they’re having to dig up the streets.’

A report released this week shows an increase of 75 per cent since 2012 in the number of recorded electricity thefts where meters are tampered with or bypassed to avoid paying charges.

It can leave live wires exposed and often involves bypassing fuse boxes, meaning appliances can overheat and catch fire. There is also a risk of serious electric shocks or electrocution.

The National Police Chiefs Council says it is a ‘growing problem’ with a significant connection to organised crime. 

Twenty offences were recorded across Devon and Cornwall in 2022/23, well below the hundreds recorded by West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and other more urban forces.

The two counties combined are 28th out of 42 police forces in the BBC’s Shared Data Unit analysis. Neighbouring Dorset was lowest of all, with just three offences.

Fire service chiefs say organised criminal activity could be behind many of the offences, but others were caused by people reacting to massive increases in the cost of electricity last year.

Cannabis farms are among the culprits, along with bitcoin ‘mines’, where people use heavy-duty computer hardware to unlock virtual currencies.

Charlie Pugsley, Assistant Commissioner at London Fire Brigade, said: ‘We do think there are two key areas. The first is criminal activity, so that could be everything from cannabis cultivation to bitcoin mining.

‘Certainly in some areas we’ve seen a lot of cases of electricity being stolen for that purpose, which again adds another hazard to our operations. 

“But then, of course there is a cost of living. People have seen huge price rises, so while we clearly can’t condone theft of electricity, it’s not unexpected. 

‘You will see people who might be desperate just to survive, because in the world we live in it’s quite difficult to get by without electricity.’