Increasingly, major snowstorms, hurricanes or other natural disasters strike our communities and bring down electrical and telephone utility poles and cables. Repairing these poles and cables is a complex and time consuming process and the restoration of service can take many days and weeks, in some cases. These long interruptions of service inevitably give rise to public demands for an underground delivery system that would be immune to high winds, falling trees, ice and snow that visit havoc on above ground poles and cables, and like many utility customers, I have often thought that underground lines were the solution to the problem. An underground system can certainly be implemented and many communities across the country require them whenever and wherever new large housing and commercial development are going to be built.
However, retrofitting existing communities particularly in the more urbanized areas with an underground utility systems is a much more complex, daunting and costly proposition. Make no mistake, it would literally take billions to put such a system in place in Westchester, Rockland and other surrounding counties and as present New York State law stands, the cost would be borne by the customers and not by the utility companies. Undoubtedly, the utilities would ask the PSC for rate hikes and they would get them. Accordingly, hundreds of dollars to would be added to already high monthly utility bills and much more for property taxes if the underground service were to be paid for by municipal or state bonds. A number of independent and industry commissioned studies suggest that the cost to place new transmission lines underground is about 8 to 10 times the cost to build overhead lines. In addition, the inconvenience of ripping up street and roads while the work is going on, even if piecemeal, would be significant. There is a hidden but real cost to traffic disruption.
Prohibitive up-front costs and inconvenience aside, rising sea-levels and storm surges can easily overwhelm an underground system as Storm Sandy recently demonstrated in Lower Manhattan; a place that has hundreds of miles of underground cables. Underground lines do experience fewer outages. However, when they do happen, they typically last longer because underground lines breakages are more difficult to find, troubleshoot and repair. For instance, last year’s heat wave in Queens, NY caused so much damage to underground lines that it took two months for many people to get their service back.
As everyone can appreciate, the restoration of power in the wake of severe and widespread storms is a complex undertaking and there is no one fix. One option would be to reconsider replacing the ugly, heavy, rigid, single piece wooden utility poles that support the wires with ones that are lighter, flexible, and aesthetically pleasing made of composite reinforced fibreglass materials. Furthermore, composite poles might prove to be less deadly that a wooden ones which are one of the leading causes of death, injury and property loss during vehicle and utility pole collisions. A recent USDOT study asserts that 17% of all automobile deaths are attributable to vehicle/pole collisions) and clearly, broken utility poles do cause a significant share other deaths, injuries and property losses that are directly attributable to their structural failings that occur during storms. In 1999, there were 1,070 fatalities and approximately 60,000 injuries related to utility pole crashes.
Composite poles are also fire resistant and can be made extremely resistant to fire with the addition of a few coats of commercially available fire retardant. Environmentally, composite poles do not have the pollution stigma or disposal problems associated with the creosote preservative on wood poles that can leach into the ground to pollute ground water and storm water runoff. By some estimates there are in excess of 150 million utility poles in the United States, carrying hundreds of millions of miles of electrified lines. For utilities, maintenance, replacement and installations of new lines offer many unique problems and challenges that cannot always be solved using existing methods, architecture or equipment.
Often, successfully overcoming these obstacles requires “outside-the-box” thinking and a willingness to consider non-traditional avenues and options.Composite utility poles offer a high strength, durable, lightweight, (poles weigh up to 65% less than similar 40’ wooden poles that weigh 1,000 lbs each.) Poles can be installed by just two linemen, with a boom truck in less than an hour. maintenance-free solution that makes installation and line design easy. These benefits can help offset the higher upfront cost of composite poles, which is about twice that of wood poles. However longer lifespan, (80 years on average) decreased freight and quicker installation contribute to an overall total lower pole cost.
I believe that composite poles should be put to the test in our storm-prone area. A few years ago a small utility company in Kentucky installed a a dozen or so of them and all survived a disasterous ice storm that decimated hundreds of their wood poles. Despite this example most, 21st century utilities are reluctant to try them and still rely on pole technology that originated in the 19th century. These wood poles break with astounding regularity and their continued employment defies the well-known axiom that repetition of a mistake will never yield a different result. In view of the daunting costs and other problem related to retrofitting existing communities with underground lines. Our utilities need to think outside of the box. There has to be a willingness to evaluate composite material poles that meet certain strength and flexibility standards and that could potentially be better able to withstand the load of heavy wires, ice, and winds from the stronger storms that are bound to hit us with more frequency in the 21st century. These poles are in use in some places in the U.S, and Canada but as far as I know Con Ed, NYSEG, LIPA and other utilities in the New York/New Jersey and Connecticut metropolitan area do not use them and the time to start is now.