Electricity system hardening: Is changing materials really the answer?

Three Critical Considerations for Long-Term Utility Solutions: Part I

By Ryan Pemberton

Wood has proven to be a dependable structural material across industries in North America for hundreds of years. Recently, however, growing interest in system hardening has some in the utility industry moving to alternative materials for use in poles and crossarms, such as fiberglass, spun concrete, and steel.

The case deserves to be made for the continued use of time-proven wood solutions. This article will do that, in two parts, by focusing on three important considerations: sustainability, resilience, and economics. Only in considering these three critical areas will the utility industry be able to move toward the long-term solutions demanded by public community and governmental concerns. This paper will focus on the environmental responsibility of wood products, in terms of carbon sequestration and sustainability.

Asking Better Questions

One of the driving factors for an increasing push toward innovation in the utility industry is the catastrophic impact of natural disasters, including ice storms, hurricanes, and record-breaking wildfire seasons. In response to the 2020 wildfires, which devastated entire cities and regions, utility managers have faced increasing pressure from the public to make innovative changes to improve power restoration following these disasters and to keep them from losing power in the first place. Called to take practical steps toward grid hardening, some utility decisionmakers are moving toward composite products.

When it comes to responding to wildfires, wood products are not the problem. Seeking a composite product to address this important issue is treating a symptom, not the underlying problem. Neither fiberglass nor steel poles are the solution to the threat of widespread wildfire damages. When wildfires become intense enough to incinerate a car, as has been reported in multiple recent events, fiberglass or steel poles will not help resolve the issue.

As noted in the California Wildfire Safety Advisory Board Guidance Advisory Opinion for the 2021 Wildfire Mitigation Plans of Electric Publicly Owned Utilities Cooperatives (Dec. 9, 2020), introducing innovative and effective vegetation management techniques that help to prevent forest fires is an appropriate response to actively address this issue, as is determining previously unidentified risks that could lead to future catastrophic wildfires. Replacing wood utility products with alternative materials is not the answer.

“We’re still using these wood products that we’ve been using for generations, and there’s a reason—they work,” says Butch Bernhardt, Senior Program Manager, Western Wood Preservers Institute.

When utility professionals speak about their current issues, a number have reported that they are pressured to do something innovative to prove to management that they are taking active steps to respond to public concerns. However, innovation for the sake of innovation alone will not address the underlying problems giving rise to public concern. What is needed are better questions that begin to address the root of current problems facing the utility industry, which ultimately help to provide viable, long-term solutions for power companies and customers alike. One such question is this: are you considering the long-term environmental impact of each material?

Environmental Responsibility: Carbon Sequestration & Sustainability

Utility companies are increasingly being told to show their sustainability efforts, encouraged to choose more environmentally responsible options. When it comes to choosing environmentally responsible utility products, it is worth considering each material’s environmental impact, renewability, and sustainability. Despite its many documented advantages, most industry professionals and the general public have yet to recognize wood’s sustainability, and the role efficient wood utilization plays in mitigating climate change.

While most people are aware that forests help to address climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the fact that wood products continue to store carbon even after manufacturing is less well known. Carbon that has been fixed or sequestered in trees remains present in wood poles and crossarms, and it can be locked in for decades, protecting our critically important ozone layer.

“Wood poles offer atmospheric carbon sequestration not provided by other materials,” notes Jeffrey J. Morrell, Professor Emeritus of Oregon State University and Director of the National Centre For Timber Durability and Design Life in Queensland, Australia.

“Internationally recognized life cycle assessments confirm the production and use of wood poles has lower environmental impacts and less energy and resource use compared to galvanized steel, concrete, and fiber-reinforced composites,” he added.

Substituting wood products for fossil fuel-intensive alternatives also helps avoid significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. A paper in Environmental Science and Technology reviewed 21 international studies and found that, on average, each ton of carbon in wood products used in place of non-wood products will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.1 tons of carbon (Sathre and O’Connor, 2010).

In addition to constituting a more environmentally responsible option, wood is more renewable than alternative materials. Given the natural sustainability of wood and current silviculture practices, there is more than enough time in the commercial lifespan of a wood pole to grow a replacement tree to replace that product. The growth in North American forests currently exceeds harvests by more than 20 percent, ensuring a steady and sustainable future supply of wood for new poles, crossarms, and other products.

Ease of Use

Wood crossarms and poles can be replaced more quickly than other utility materials. When a crisis hits, production can supply wood products on an expedited schedule more quickly than manufacturers using other materials. In 2005, Category 5 Hurricane Katrina left more than $125 billion in damages, devastating broad swaths of the country. The recovery from this natural disaster has taken years. However, 92,000 wood poles and 90,000 wood crossarms were delivered in just four weeks, helping to restore power and offer essential support. When Superstorm Sandy ripped across the Atlantic in 2012, causing $70 billion in damages across eight countries, 65,100 wood poles and 103,500 wood crossarms were delivered in weeks—an impossibility with alternate materials.

Being able to respond quickly to restore power is critical for the industry. Wood products allow that rapid response in a way that no other material can.

Since the 1930s, wood utility poles have been treated with Pentachlorophenol, often referred to as penta, an industrial strength preservative to extend the pole’s service life to 70 years or more. Used extensively in treating Douglas fir poles, penta has achieved a long record of service performance and safe use. Penta has historically been dissolved in diesel oil for pressure treating.

More recently, biodiesel has been used as a carrier oil for penta. Biodiesel is a more sustainable alternative to petroleum-derived diesel fuel since it is produced from renewable sources such as corn and soybeans. Other preservatives, such as DCOI, are being considered for treating poles and crossarms moving forward, which offer additional environmental benefits. As it has been used for penta, biodiesel can also be used in the treating process with the DCOI preservative.

In all of these ways, wood products have been shown to offer an environmentally responsible, sustainable, and renewable product than other materials.

Conclusion

Environmental responsibility is one of several critical areas for consideration by decision makers seeking reliable long-term solutions in the utility industry. Part II of this paper will discuss two additional important considerations: resilience and economics.


About the Author

Ryan Pemberton is a writer, editor, and independent communications consultant. Ryan has written for a variety of industries, including energy, manufacturing, healthcare, transportation, and nonprofit organizations across the country. This article was commissioned by a leading manufacturer of wood utility products.

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