Today, RS Technologies is replacing nearly 9,000 poles in the U.S. Virgin Islands. “FEMA came in and said if we’re going to rebuild, it’s going to have to be different than wood because we keep replacing wood poles that have failed in hurricanes,” Fecht says.
Installation Cost Case
FRP poles remain popular in areas where their benefits have already been proven. “There’s always going to be that need for limited access areas and woodpecker-prone areas where utilities want to be proactive and put composites in,” Troutman points out.
What is changing in those areas, however, is that utilities are now less likely to balk at the higher upfront cost of FRP poles. They’ve already seen the healthy return on investment in composite poles and crossarms.
“There are a number of utilities we work with that, as soon as they have a woodpecker hole, that pole comes out and a composite pole goes in,” Fecht says. The reason? Installing a $500 wood distribution pole might ultimately cost closer to $13,000. That includes higher costs for equipment to install wood poles, plus future maintenance costs of sending out crews to inspect and patch woodpecker holes at easily $1,000 per hole. And because the conductor-induced vibration of a wood utility pole suggests to woodpeckers that there’s insect activity inside the pole, one hole quickly leads to dozens more. Those costs rise fast.
The case for return on investment is also being made in difficult-to-access instances. Fecht cites an example of an installation in Australia where the utility had planned to build an $80,000 road to move heavy equipment in and replace a single wood utility pole. “You can rent a helicopter for a day for a lot less than $80,000,” Fecht says. While it may seem counterintuitive, the ability to transfer lightweight composite products by helicopter has demonstrated tremendous cost savings.
An installation of 140 H-frame structures for a Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks wind farm transmission line connection in northern Scotland also demonstrated how helicopters could lead to savings. The installation of these 90-foot FRP structures took only three days, with a cost of $16,500 per hour of helicopter use. It’s a tough number to swallow, until calculating the cost of months of transporting massive wood structures across the difficult terrain. In addition, the line was completed well ahead of schedule, allowing the line to be energized and deliver revenue sooner.
Crossarms have also helped make the cost case for FRP transmission and distribution structures. “A majority of utilities have now adopted composite crossarms in place of wood,” Schoenoff says. “They get significant grid hardening benefits in addition to a much lower total ownership cost due to the improved service life of fiberglass crossarms.”