We're Going To Have To Cut Down A Lot Of Big Trees To Upgrade The Electric Grid For EVs

Image: Oregon State University
Image: Oregon State University

Over 120 million wood power poles stand in the United States, literally propping up our aerial wire power grid. Every single day some of these poles age out and need to be replaced, some are damaged by fires, car crashes, or natural forces — wind, woodpeckers, beavers, and rot, chiefly. As we continue to spend more on our aging infrastructure, we’re also leaning on it more than ever to power our lives. Increased electric car adoption, large-scale solar and wind farms, and a $1.2 billion infrastructure bill mean we’re going to need a whole lot more power poles in the near future.

Demand is rising for taller and larger-diameter power poles, which means companies like Koppers are seeking out and cutting down massive old-growth conifers to sate this demand. The old standard 40-foot Class 4 pole is falling out of favor, as power companies jump to install new 45-foot Class 2 poles for a thicker and stronger foundation to their lines. Koppers Vidalia, Georgia plant manager Brad Singleton told the Wall Street Journal, “They don’t know what’s coming next. They want room to add things.”

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For those, Koppers must find giants and chop off their tapered tops to make a pole that meets the stouter specifications. Trees big enough could become scarce if demand for the largest poles keeps growing.

“Based on production data and current harvest schedules, there are not enough larger trees available to sustainably produce the quantity of 40-foot poles made today if the poles had to be two to four classes larger,” the North American Wood Pole Council warned in a 2020 paper. The trade group suggested utilities consider more, not larger, poles.

As fewer of these massive trees are available, other manufacturing methods will have to step in to pick up the slack. The infrastructure is going to need to be built out and reinforced, regardless of old-growth tree pole availability. As a result, makers of concrete, steel, and composite poles are also ramping up their production in anticipation of the increased demand.

This investment has been a long time coming, as this country has been working with a band-aided, pieced-together power grid for decades. This increased demand, and the expected exponential demand growth for power in the near future is going to tax our grid beyond its breaking point. Perhaps there is a case for increased buried cable infrastructure over wood post. It’s more expensive to develop, to be sure, but far less susceptible to outage and interference.

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