Cannabis farmers steal around £200 million of electricity every year to grow their illegal crops, according to figures out today.
Crime expert Phil Butler, an academic and former detective inspector, said that was enough to power every home in a city the size of Newcastle for a year.
Butler, co-director of Newcastle University's Centre for Cybercrime and Computer Security (CCCS), will join forces with other organisations to investigate how new technology can be used to crack down on the criminals.
He said: "The cultivation of cannabis is happening on an industrial scale but at the moment the police are still very much reliant on intelligence and tip-offs.
"What we are trying to do is develop technologies that will enable us to take a more proactive approach in the fight against cannabis cultivation."
Growing cannabis indoors without soil under lights produces strains that are more potent. But cultivation with lamps requires a lot of energy.
"The electricity costs associated with even a small-scale farm are astronomical," said Butler, formerly with Northumbria Police.
"To get around this, the individuals responsible find ways of siphoning off the electricity from the main source - often this literally means digging down underground outside the premises and hooking into the main supply."
Butler said the "staggering" cost of stolen electricity in the UK was around £200 million a year.
"But it's about more than money. These farms are essentially death traps. In one small space such as a loft or a garage you have all this electricity and gallons of water which is a lethal combination."
The problem is being discussed at a two-day conference in Newcastle today, attended by people from the fire service, the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), energy companies and the Home Office.
Solutions include sophisticated meters which could detect spikes where unexpectedly high levels of electricity were being withdrawn from the grid.
Experts will also attend from Holland, where scratch and sniff cards are used to educate the public about the distinctive smell associated with a cannabis farm.
The conference follows the Acpo announcement that more than 20 cannabis farms were found by police every day. In the last two years, some 1.1m plants have been seized with a street value of £207.4m.
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