During Hurricane Sandy, more than 60,000 wooden utility poles were destroyed. It was a glaring public display of a critical problem in the utility market: Aging, overloaded poles lead to unexpected failures.

“Composites can be a game-changer for the utility industry,” said Scott Holmes, senior vice president and general manager of Utility Composite Solutions International and chairman of ACMA’s Utility & Communication Structures Council. “The industry has recognized they are behind the curve and what new engineered solutions can do for them.”

The first GFRP pole was installed in Hawaii in 1962. Today, more than 300 customers in over 18 countries worldwide use FRP utility structures, including poles, cross arms, stand-offs, insulators and conductor reinforcement. “There are a lot of benefits we can upsell to the utility industry,” said Holmes. These include:

  • Improved reliability – FRP structures perform well in major storm events and lead to reduced power outages and faster service restoration.
  • Longer service life – They are corrosion, rot and pest resistant and offer excellent weathering and UV protection.
  • Enhanced safety – They are non-conductive, have high dielectric strength, are safer for live-line installations and maintenance, and reduce potential touch and step hazards.
  • Environmental sustainability – They are made of non-leaching material and have no soil remediation or end-of-life disposal issues or costs.
  • Transportation savings – Composite poles weigh three to seven times less than wood, concrete or steel poles of equivalent strength, said Holmes. Therefore, more product can be transported per load, resulting in fewer loads, less fuel used and reduced delivery time.

Despite the benefits, there are challenges to penetrating the utility market. Holmes noted that utilities are slow to adopt new technologies. In addition, they are sensitive to “first costs” and must see the installed and life cycle cost benefits. “Everybody agrees that composites can perform,” said Holmes. “The issue is how do you sell that? How do you get into the market and make it a win-win for the utility customer?”

Holmes shared three ways that the composites industry can move into the market: replace aging wood with FRP composite structures, intersperse FRP structures within existing lines to bolster the infrastructure or develop predictive performance models for dynamic conditions. He also listed more than a dozen places where FRP poles make sense, including environmentally-sensitive areas, remote locations, hurricane and tornado prone areas, coastal locations, wetlands and bogs, and places where termites, ants and woodpeckers threaten to destroy traditional poles.