Less than a decade ago, FRP composite utility pole manufacturers were going to utility companies to make the value case for installing their more expensive, yet significantly lighter weight products in difficult-to-access areas. Then came Hurricane Sandy in 2012, followed by Irma, Maria and Michael among other massive hurricanes and two years of record-setting wildfires in California. Suddenly there’s been an explosion in discussions about – and funding for – hardening the nation’s electric grid.

Today, the case has been made and utilities are turning to composite pole and crossarm manufacturers for solutions. “In the last two years, it’s like someone threw a switch. All of a sudden we can’t make enough of these poles,” says Galen Fecht, director of technical service and international sales for composite utility pole manufacturer RS Technologies Inc.

Withstanding Fire Tests

Perhaps nowhere has this trend been more dramatic than in response to the wildfires tearing through California. 2018 became the worst year on record for wildfires in the state, but a state climate change assessment predicts that by the end of this century the average burned area in California will increase by 77%. Wooden poles contribute to the problem when they snap under strong winds and live wires fall onto dry grass, providing sparks that ignite some of the most destructive fires. As utility companies face public scrutiny – and in some cases lawsuits – they are no longer standing idly by.

A couple years ago, California utilities began reaching out to FRP pole manufacturers in search of a solution that could better withstand wildfires. “Most composite poles and crossarms are inherently self-extinguishing, so they perform well in fires,” Fecht says.

There are other factors that set composite materials apart from traditional wood materials, too. “Fiberglass crossarms are stronger and more consistent than wood crossarms, resulting in less crossarm breakages and reduced likelihood of energized conductors dropping and starting fires in the first place,” says Michael Schoenoff, vice president of engineering for FRP crossarm manufacturer Geotek. “Additionally, the smooth surface of a fiberglass crossarm is less likely to build up with contaminants and is therefore less likely to lead to arc tracking.” Schoenoff notes that several utilities have reported a significant reduction in pole-top fires after switching to composite crossarms.

Eric Haddad, composite unit general manager for Valmont Industries, shares that PG&E, with support from San Diego Gas & Electric, sponsored a series of tests of FRP distribution poles in September 2019. Independent labs Southwest Research Institute and EDM organized a fire test, followed by a bend and break test to validate the structural integrity of the poles after fire.