Years of investigations have led some PUCs to demand new “non-wood” infrastructure solutions. “The PUCs have said to the utilities that they either need to develop a plan to make their infrastructure more robust so we don’t see these massive failures, or they need to submit a plan for improvement that will then allow for additional costs in their rate base,” explains Scott T. Holmes, director of business development for Highland Composites in Statesville, N.C., and chair of ACMA’s Utilities & Communications Structures Council.

In other cases, utilities are coming to this conclusion themselves. For Appalachian Power Co. (APCO) in Charleston, W. Va., snow damage led to the initial switch to composites. A very wet snowstorm in December 2009 caused extensive damage, including approximately 1,000 broken utility poles. “Many of these poles were located in very rough terrain. Getting heavy equipment to some of these locations was almost impossible,” says Tim Brammer, senior electrical engineer for the company.

APCO began using helicopters to transport poles to these remote locations, but was limited to a 1,000-pound lifting capacity. “This weight limit meant that we could only lift and set a 35-foot class 4 or 5 pole,” he adds. “Often we needed a taller and stronger pole at some of these locations, but the weight kept us from using a standard size helicopter [to install them].” (Utility poles are divided into ten classes, indicating the circumference of the pole: the higher the class number, the skinnier the pole.)

To solve the problem, the company began using INTELLI-POLE® modular utility poles from Highland Composites in 2012. It’s much easier to install the 850-pound modular sections than traditional wood poles. “By using the INTELLI-POLE, we can now set a 45-foot class 1 pole with a standard, lower-cost helicopter,” Brammer says. So far, the utility has replaced approximately three dozen wood poles with GFRP ones, and it’s considering expanding the use of composites.

“We are currently conducting a cost comparison study between the wood and composite pole set in rough terrain. This will determine the actual savings. This savings will help us justify using more composite poles,” Brammer says.

APCo-Composite-Utility-Pole

The light weight of composite poles compared to wood or steel allows linemen to hand carry and install replacement poles in remote locations. Photo Credit: Appalachian Power

Despite their higher upfront costs, composites are gaining acceptance as a solid choice for hardening infrastructure across the country. These products’ light weight, long life, corrosion resistance and low conductivity are all significant benefits compared to the alternatives of wood, steel and concrete.