Meet a Trade Group That Stands Up for Utilities

You may never have heard of the North American Wood Pole Council, but you can see its work just about everywhere you go. Read on for some fun facts about a trade group that supports the makers of the ubiquitous wood utility pole.

Every good wire deserves a way to keep it strung safely above ground. Fortunately, the North American Wood Pole Council (NAWPC) is on the case.

The trade group, which represents the manufacturers of the more than 100 million wooden utility poles in the U.S. (that’s one pole for every three Americans), is facing a few challenges. Read more about the industry below:

A famous inventor: The history of the utility pole dates to the 1840s, when telegraph inventor Samuel Morse found that his efforts to bury a cable between Baltimore and Washington, DC, were ineffective. Morse used a series of poles to communicate between the two cities, first sending a message from the U.S. Supreme Court to Baltimore on May 24, 1844. (Not to be outdone, Thomas Edison invented a successful method for installing underground wires.)

It’s just a complete fallacy to think wood poles won’t be here 100 or 200 years from now. They are the backbone of our infrastructure.

Reputation and risks: In recent years, however, the utility pole—which now carries numerous kinds of cables, including thicker coaxial and fiber-optic wires—has taken some hits to its reputation. “Those who have grown up in the U.S. generally don’t notice them–-–or how unsightly they look,” Slate contributor Mark Vanhoenacker wrote last year. “But visitors from abroad are often astonished. In much of the rest of the rich world, utility lines are hidden, underground and out of sight.” More troublesome are the potential risks the poles pose during storms—something that became a major concern after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast and large, hurricane-resistant poles were put in place. Rather than reassuring the public, the safety measure led to worries that if the 65- to 70-foot poles fell, they could crash into houses.

Defending utility poles: NAWPC notes that utility poles mostly stood tall during 2005’s record hurricane season, which caused significant damage in Gulf Coast states, and that “utilities in these states reported comparable failure rates of wood poles and non-wood poles.” (And the poles were easy to replace, too. A fact sheet notes [PDF] that within a month of Hurricane Katrina, the industry had delivered 92,000 wood poles and 90,000 wood cross arms to the affected area.) As for aesthetic complaints, the group says the poles get a bad rap. “We prevent the discrimination that is often being cast upon us in preference for those other products,” NAWPC Administrative Vice President Dallin Brooks told U.S. News and World Report. “It’s just a complete fallacy to think wood poles won’t be here 100 or 200 years from now. They are the backbone of our infrastructure.” Brooks added that the wooden poles’ lower cost make them a more efficient option than steel poles or underground wiring.

That point is supported by a 2013 study [PDF] by the Edison Electric Institute that found that underground power lines come with higher costs and structural issues of their own.

“As recent experiences with Hurricane Sandy demonstrate, underground facilities are very vulnerable to flooding and water damage,” the study stated.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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