The presence of wooden electric utility poles is, by now, such a familiar part of the U.S. landscape that many of us barely notice them anymore. For electric utilities, however, those faithful powerline supports can pose numerous problems, so some companies are looking more seriously at a modern-day alternative. Like Benjamin Braddock in the film “The Graduate,” utilities are being urged to consider plastics in their pole-purchasing plans.

The plastics in this case are composite materials manufactured from fiberglass, polyester or polyurethane resins, or a combination. Composite utility poles offer a number of advantages over traditional wooden versions.

First, they weigh significantly less, from 350 to 500 pounds compared to 1,500 pounds or more for wood. This makes them easier to handle in tight or remote locations. In addition, they are impervious to water, so they won’t rot in damp or marshy soil. And, they don’t require toxic chemicals, such as creosote, for protection in these locations. Neither woodpeckers nor termites can damage them.

Mike Montoya, director of grid advancement for Rosemead, Calif.-based Southern California Edison (SCE), said his company recently began using composite poles.

“We’ve been using wood poles for 123 years,” he said. “In certain niche locations, we were looking at what we could use to address maintenance issues.”

As an added benefit in SCE’s often fire-plagued service territory, composite poles are fire-resistant. They can burn when in direct contact with flames, but they won’t continue to burn once flames move on or are extinguished.

Plus, the pole’s hollow core provides a channel for copper wiring, making theft of this valuable material more difficult.

On the downside, composite poles can be significantly more expensive than wooden models. They can be up to three times costlier, in some circumstances, according to Jim Bob Wiles, marketing manager for Shakespeare Composites, a Newberry, S.C.-based fiberglass-pole manufacturer. The price difference goes down, though, for taller, transmission-line poles, and those settings are where many utilities begin testing the products.

One utility’s experience

That’s the path SCE followed, beginning about 15 years ago, according to Percy Haralson, manager of field technologies for the company. Since then, the utility has considered them on a case-by-case basis in hard-to-access distribution settings. Now, SCE is testing broader adoption of the poles in its “Circuit of the Future” program, a 12,000-volt installation designed to serve 1,500 customers and test real-world performance of a number of advanced power technologies.

A sectional pole design is making Circuit of the Future pole installation easier than with standard composite products. The poles are manufactured in 15-foot tapered sections that can nest within each other for shipping. Individual sections can be carried by two workers from the truck to the job site, where they are bolted together to reach the required height.

Haralson sees advantages in this design beyond easier installation. Replacing individual units damaged in accidents also can be less complicated and reduce inventory requirements. And transportation to job sites could become easier because the 15-foot sections could fit into a standard truck, without needing an attached pole dolly.

“Just from a logistical standpoint, that makes it much easier,” Haralson said.

Manufacturers also have developed composite cross arms for use with composite poles, although standard cross arms also can be used. In either case, though, line crews may need some training in working with these newer products. As Dustin Troutman, director of marketing and product development for Creative Pultrusions, Alum Bank, Pa., notes, harder bits are required to drill through composite material. And, because these poles feature a hollow core, bolts need to go all the way through the pole and be secured on the opposite side to ensure a safe attachment.

However, Troutman sees training as a minor issue, and said his company is seeing an uptick in the utility end of its business.

“It’s growing with the current economy,” he said. “People are looking at ways to save cost, and there’s an environmental push. Communities don’t want creosote-treated poles near schools or waterways.”

Camouflaging capabilities

While one might expect some opposition to the new poles from traditionalists who favor wooden versions over these composite upstarts, that doesn’t appear to be the case. In fact, because the composite poles can be manufactured in just about any color, they can appear to be less obtrusive than standard wood-tone offerings.

“In some areas, [utilities] are putting them in for aesthetic reasons,” Troutman said, adding that includes sites in some national parks.

With camouflage that good, you may need to check the trees to make sure they’re not composite, as well.

ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at chuck@chuck-ross.com.