Composites stand to gain ground in transforming the utilities and communications infrastructure market.

Since the United States began moving from localized electric distribution to bulk transmission nearly a century ago, there have been relatively few widespread infrastructure changes. Today, however, it’s become increasingly clear that the technology exists to replace aging and problematic infrastructure, prevent the massive grid outages seen across the country in recent years and support new utility offerings – and consumers expect to see solutions put in place.

GFRP utility poles have been used since the 1960s when the first fiber-reinforced polymer transmission structure was erected in Maui, but today several factors are pushing utilities to expand the use of more reliable alternatives to traditional products.

Putting Power Outages in the Past

While wood poles – the workhorse of the electric utility – have a predicted 30-year life expectancy, many have been in service upward of 80 years. Replacement typically comes only after a pole is damaged, but it’s easy to understand why utilities have operated on a “run to failure” model. An electric company might have tens of thousands of poles in its jurisdiction, and replacing every component on a regular cycle would take significant time and money.

High Plains Power Inc. in Riverton, Wyo., for example, has more than 80,000 poles in its service area. “That’s a lot of line to look at,” says Sid McDonald, manager of operations and engineering for the company. “We’ve got a 75-year-old system, and a lot of stuff needs to be upgraded. … We look at lines, and if they’re starting to show some age we go in and redo a section at a time.”

Because wood is susceptible to damage from rot, woodpeckers and weather, many states have mandated periodic inspections of their utilities infrastructure. However, not all utilities can be proactive on this front. As Steve Long, manager of engineering for United Electric Cooperative in central Pennsylvania, notes, “I am not sure what our ‘standard’ rate of replacement for poles is. We do have poles still in service that were set in the 1940s.”

Today, however, waiting for failure has become unacceptable to both consumers and state Public Utility Commissions (PUCs). Since alternatives to wooden electric components show promise, the PUCs want to see grid failure become a problem of the past.

The issue of grid failures gained media attention in 2011 when windstorms swept through Southern California, knocking over transmission lines that ultimately started a fire in one county and major power outages in others. Then, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy left more than 8 million electric customers along the East Coast without power. The severity of these incidents, as well as several straight line wind events leading to outages throughout the Midwest, prompted PUCs to take a closer look at the electric grid and ask how these failures could have been prevented.