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New Tools Assist Utilities In Defining Green Benefits of Wood Utility Poles and Crossarms

image credit: NAWPC
Butch Bernhardt's picture
Sr. Program Manager, Western Wood Preservers Institute

Butch Bernhardt is the Senior Program Manager for the Western Wood Preservers Institute and the North American Wood Pole Council. His responsibilities include product education, technical...

  • Member since 2018
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  • Aug 5, 2020

Utilities now have a host of new tools to communicate the environmental benefits of one of their most visible assets: the wood utility pole.

There are an estimated 130 million to 150 million wood utility poles in service in North America, bringing electricity and communications services to every corner of the continent. While the poles are prevalent in the electricity distribution system, the “green” benefits they offer is often overlooked.

Utility poles are made from wood, a naturally sustainable material. While wood offers many structural and workability benefits, it also serves as a carbon sink, or reservoir of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere.

 A new calculator can help quantify how much carbon is held in a utility’s inventory of wood poles and crossarms. The Wood Utility Pole & Crossarm Calculator is available in an online version or as a downloadable ExcelTM based calculator. It was developed by the North American Wood Pole Council (NAWPC) and can be viewed online at

The calculator allows utilities to determine the amount of carbon held in their poles and crossarms. The number of utility poles can be entered using pull-down selections for the class and length based on the standard ANSI pole sizes. Crossarm data is entered by its actual dimensions. Up to 30 different sizes of poles can be entered.

Once data is entered, the calculator determines the total volume and mass of wood, the mass of carbon in Imperial and metric tons and the mass of carbon dioxide removed by using wood. The data can be entered into an online EPA Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator that converts carbon data into real world examples of the environmental benefits, such as miles driven by an automobile or barrels of oil consumed.

NAWPC has published a companion technical bulletin Calculating Carbon in Wood Utility Poles and Crossarms, with detailed information about carbon sequestration in wood poles and crossarms.

Wood poles are pressure treated with preservatives to provide decades of longevity in service. At times, utility customers may have concerns about whether those preservatives can negatively impact the environment. A new technical bulletin, based on recent research, provides answers those concerns and underscores the minimal risk that treated poles pose to the environment.

The bulletin Preserved Wood Utility Poles and the Environment reviews the extensive research into how much preservative moves from utility poles over time and how it compares to federal standards and limits. The 12-page report details previous scientific research and recent studies by the Alaska Dept. of Transportation showing preservatives that do move into the environment stay within a few inches of the pole, posing minimal risk to groundwater, surrounding soil or wildlife.

Tables in the report provide context for wood preservative components released into the environment, showing natural background levels as well as EPA guidelines. The report cites a number of peer-reviewed scientific studies on wood preservatives in the environment, concluding that any risks are minimal and manageable.

All materials used for utility structures, including wood, steel, concrete and composites, have an impact on the environment. Determining the impacts for each of these materials is best accomplished through internationally recognized Life Cycle Assessments, or LCAs.

NAWPC offers two LCA reports on wood poles, one for CCA-treated poles used mostly in the U.S. South and East and one for Penta-treated poles found in the West, Midwest and South.

The Summary LCA reports for both preservatives show treated wood poles have less energy and resource use, lower environmental impacts and can decrease greenhouse gas levels. Wood poles have significantly lower impacts in seven out of eight environmental indicators compared to alternative materials. These include water and fossil fuel use, acid rain, ecotoxicity and net greenhouse gas emissions.

Each LCA was conducted under ISO 14044 standards and were peer reviewed and published in independent scientific journals. Summaries of the LCAs are available in the online Technical Library at The full LCA studies are available from the Treated Wood Council (

NAWPC is an independent council representing the North American pressure-treated wood pole and crossarm industry. It is supported by member companies from the Western Wood Preservers Institute, Southern Pressure Treaters' Association and Wood Preservation Canada.


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