A quarter of electricity fraud in Catalonia is due to marijuana plantations

This illegal activity's energy use is equivalent to the annual consumption of 34,000 homes

3 min
An indoor marijuana plantation that the Mossos have intervened this October in Martorell.

BarcelonaThe marijuana business is spreading in Catalonia and is sparking fraudulent energy consumption. In the last four years, the number of cases of electricity fraud linked to illegal marijuana plantations have doubled, according to Endesa's calculations. In 2021 the company closed the year with 684 reports linked to this illicit activity in residential buildings, twice as many as in 2018. This means almost two cannabis plantations using stolen electricity are discovered every day.

Indoor plantations are on the rise because, unlike what happens in outdoors, the process can be accelerated and more harvests obtained, up to four in a year. That is why growers need large amounts of electricity to run all the lighting, air conditioning and ventilation circuits. In fact, the energy linked to the cultivation of these plants Endesa noticed was stolen exceeded 119 million kilowatts, that is, the equivalent to the annual consumption of over 34,000 homes.

Marijuana plantations already account for 27% of all the energy defrauded in Catalonia. At least, these are electricity companies' estimates based on the cases they have detected. The company, however, points out that there are many other hidden plantations and raises the estimated figure for the whole of Spain to 1.5 terawatts, a figure that which is equivalent to Palma's yearly electricity consumption.

The data show the increase in marijuana plantations, which not only cause economic damage for the company but also constitute a public safety risk. "The network is not prepared for such high consumption, and does not support it. That is why often when a plantation is fraudulently connected to the network, the overload protection systems are triggered and the electricity supply is interrupted, also for all other neighbours", explains the head of Endesa's inspection team in Catalonia, who prefers to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisals from drug traffickers. In addition, the inspector points out, there are serious dangers. "When a network is manipulated there is a risk of fire and electrocution," he says.

Damage to neighbours

Detecting these illicit cases is not complicated, but putting an end to them is a task that takes months. In some cases they are identified thanks to police operations, other times because the company registers unusual consumption and others because neighbours the authorities warn. "There are many other types of fraud, but the case of plantations is of particular concern to us because it is the one that has grown the most and because a single case of these is equivalent to a fraud committed by many households and, in the end, they also affect health –he specifies–. We always act in coordination with the security forces and there are very specific protocols," he explains. In fact, Endesa calculates that the average consumption of a plantation is the same as that of 80 homes combined, and the figure can be much higher in large-scale plantations.

The police say neighbours can help detect these cases. "The most obvious sign is when there are wires in sight," explains agent Araceli Jorba. "The company never leaves power cables in sight and, therefore, if neighbours see them they should inform the police or the company on their website or by phone, and they can do it anonymously," she adds.

Damp, smell and power cuts

The residents of Tordera, in Maresme, know well what Jorba is referring to. "We have had hundreds of cases and the fight against this type of activity is constant", admits interim mayor and Security councillor, Rafa Delgado. "The neighbours sent us signals that were very similar to each other, such as appliances that stopped working properly, microwaves that gave too much or too little heat, or strange variations in the electrical flow," he adds. "Every time we detect a case, we inform the company, the police to take joint action and guarantee neighbours' safety," Delgado explains.

Other times, the inspector points out, neighbours who share walls with a plantation have damp, as a result of condensation. In Tarragona, another of the areas with the highest concentration of plantations and fraud, the neighbours – who also prefer to remain anonymous – say that often the first sign is the crop's smell.

Collaboration with the police

While plantations account for almost 30% of the energy defrauded, there is another 70% caused by more common electrical fraud, such as in homes or industries and even in legal commercial activities. It is for this reason that Endesa has launched a campaign alongside the Catalan police to inform different communities of the dangers of illegally connecting to the electricity mainline. In total, the company says that in 2021 almost 23,000 fraudulent connections were detected in Catalonia, which defrauded up to 434 million kilowatts, equivalent to the consumption of 124,000 Catalan households in the same year.