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The Broadside (Transcript): More power poles, more problems

Anisa Khalifa: Electric vehicles and renewable energy sources are entering their boom era. Some estimates suggest that American power transmission will need to double in capacity in order to meet demand in the coming decade. The construction of an expanded energy grid is going to require a lot of raw minerals, metals… and a surprising commodity: lumber.

Unidentified Speaker: The granddaddy product of them all in the woods is utility poles.

Anisa Khalifa: The EV era is going to need a lot of trees. And if you think somebody can just go out into a forest and pick any pine tree for a utility pole, think again.

Unidentified Speaker: There's probably only like going to be a half dozen or so on an acre that could be a pole.

Anisa Khalifa: I'm Anisa Khalifa. On this episode of The Broadside, we take a trip to the forest and track the utility pole boom happening in the South.

You can’t go far in North Carolina without coming across some pine trees. Firmly rooted in the South’s Pine Belt, North Carolina’s forests stretch across more than 18 million acres. But a lot of these trees already have somebody’s name on them.

Robert Bardon: Most of our forest in North Carolina as you drive down the road are actually privately owned forest land.

Anisa Khalifa: This is Robert Bardon. He’s a professor and extension specialist at NC State’s College of Natural Resources in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Robert Bardon: We have over 500,000, landowners that own forest land in the state. And that is mostly owned as private lands. We're not talking federal government, local government or state government, these are private individuals that own forest land.

Anisa Khalifa: Robert says all this forest provides big business for the state. Turns out money can grow on trees.

Robert Bardon: So we're a very important state related to forestry. Here in North Carolina alone, the more than $35 billion economic impact the forest sector forest industry has on our state economy, it's quite large. There's very few commodities that come close to that, or even supersede that.

Anisa Khalifa: But only a fraction of that industry includes utility pole production. Robert recently took my colleague Charlie Shelton-Ormond on a walk through a forest in the heart of Raleigh — to talk more about our trees.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: This forest is used for educational purposes, bringing students here and teaching them about forestry. But do you also harvest the trees to be used for other purposes?

Robert Bardon: So the forest here, at Schenck forest, we do actively manage it, that includes harvesting and everything. So we try to manage this forest, just like any other organization or private individual might be managing their forests, we do look to generate income off the forest that we then invest back into the management and care of the forest, plus the educational aspects.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: What is North Carolina's place within supplying utility poles from its pine supply? Do you see North Carolina's as a major source for supplying these utility poles that seem to be increasing in their demand?

Robert Bardon: Poles are a very high end product produced by our pine forests. Southern pines, in general, are a species for producing pole trees. In a typical acre of forest land, it's a very small percentage of trees that actually end up as poles. It might be in an acre of land, 20 trees, where we might be harvesting 120 trees, when their final maturity. In general, it's it's really a small percentage of the products that come out of the forest.

Ryan Dezember: The trees are rare, they have to be really big, really straight, not a lot of knots.

Anisa Khalifa: Ryan Dezember is a commodities reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He recently reported on the increasing demand for utility poles, and the pressing need for more tall pine trees.

Ryan Dezember: So they're sort of like, you know, you can imagine, like in a population of humans, like how many are going to be like, like professional athletes, or like NBA players, there's not that many out there that are like just the right size, shape and size. And so, you know, when you can find those, you get a premium, from what, you know, a mill might pay you if they were going to cut that tree into two by fours, or certainly pulp it into, you know, cardboard, or whatever.

Anisa Khalifa: So why are big trees like this such a hot commodity for the renewable industry? Why do they need them so much right now?

Ryan Dezember: So there's a few things going on. And one is just you know, human nature is that we put up poles all over to do the first telegraphs in the 1800s, and then telephones and power. And, you know, they need to be replaced, they don't last forever, they last several decades, but they don't last as long as a lot of them have been up, in the ground. But along with that, we need a lot more power these days, because of electric cars and computers and all our phones that we're constantly charging and the demand for power is just so much. It's more intense these days. And that means you know, more wires, it means bigger equipment like transformers and such. So the poles have to be bigger and stronger than they were in previous years, sort of the run of the mill pole. And that is meaning, not only do we need a lot of poles, but we need a lot of bigger poles.

Ryan Dezember: As one executive told me, the trick is, the standard pole for decades has been one size. And now, the utilities want to size up one or two, and this guy was like, you know, here's the thing, the typical pole is that way, because that's basically how trees grow. And the needs now, he said, something like, God doesn't make a pole like that, you know, they have to find these giant trees, and then kind of chop them down to size to meet the sort of stouter specifications today that utilities want. It's touched off this scramble to find, you know, sort of the perfect specimens. And there's concerns that there aren't enough of them to meet demand.

Anisa Khalifa: One of the things that this makes me think of also is if you need such a specific size and part of the trunk of the tree, what happens to every other part of the tree? And is that a lot of waste as well. Is there, like some conversation around that waste? Is it waste? Is that wood going to other uses?

Ryan Dezember: So if you go to a pole mill, a lot of times like that, they'll spin it on a big, it's sort of like peeling a carrot or something, it just spins around, or potato, and they spin it around and put these knives on it and they kind of sculpt it and smooth it out. And all the stuff, the bark and anything that's left over, goes into a big pile of basically sawdust. And all that sawdust is taken and fed into a kiln, that that is sent to the sort of the big drying sheds where they dry these poles out so that they can then treat them with preservatives so that they last for decades. So the forest product industry broadly, they were really early on sort of using, you know, all the parts.

And it really, back when it started, it wasn't really like designed to be ecologically friendly or anything, it was just a source of cheap and abundant energy right on hand. And as one Koppers executive told me, he goes, we weren't trying to be environmentally friendly when we started doing this, we were being cheap. But of course, it's worked out that it definitely, you know, is a benefit to them in terms of when investors are looking to invest in businesses that they deem to be sort of sustainable that can, you know, navigate the new world where there might be regulations or customer preferences and sustainable products.

Anisa Khalifa: So, why are we even still putting power lines above ground? Why can't we just bury these power lines, and then it would take away the need for these poles in the first place?

Ryan Dezember: Well, it would be incredibly expensive, tremendously more expensive. And think about, like, now, if there's a problem, and you have to go and send, you know, a crew out to repair a transformer or something, they pull up in a truck, climb up a ladder and do it. Imagine if you had to dig up a roadway. It is just so difficult to build an overhead power line. Imagine if you had to get permission to dig up everybody's property or right of way or crossroads. And so it just is prohibitively expensive. You know, in big cities, you can do it. But to do it on a grand scale, and over distance would just be just totally prohibitively expensive.

You know, a lot of people might say, Well, why are we cutting down trees to be green? Well, that's a good question. But you know, also, if you cut down a 40-year-old pine tree, and preserve it, that carbon that it's absorbed over the decades is going to be held in that wood until it is burnt or you know, comes down and decays. So in a way, you can look at all those wooden poles and say those are little storage capsules for carbon.

Anisa Khalifa: When we come back, we’ll talk more with Ryan about how one pole mill in Georgia is dealing with this rise in demand.

We’re back with the Broadside. So Ryan, you went down to Southeast Georgia and talked with some people in Vidalia who work at a Koppers plant. Why did you choose this place specifically to spotlight?

Ryan Dezember: You know, Georgia is interesting. I tell people, I'm in New York, and so the South is sort of a mystery to some folks, especially the rural south and I sort of compare Georgia to Texas. What Texas is to oil, Georgia is to forest products. It's just a place where there's a lot of action in the woods and you know, anybody's ever driven through Florida or Georgia knows there's a ton of pine trees not that there's you know, it's that different than say, North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, all these places, what we generally call the pine belt, which runs from East Texas all the way you know, touching into Virginia.

And that was just a place where they had a lot of work going on, they had you know, all systems go basically. This is a company, Koppers, who was investing a lot in being able to ramp up production, you know, adding equipment at mills and things like that. And that was one mill where there was just you know, there was work going on and orders coming in and we could get a good look at how a pole is made.

Anisa Khalifa: So you're describing this demand for poles being so high for so many reasons. And yet the capacity for making them is too low right now. So what are the ways that pole mills are planning to alleviate some of this pressure? Like, are they thinking of solutions?

Ryan Dezember: Yeah, well, so a couple of years ago, the trade group that represents pole makers said, Well, look, if you, utilities, want to go two sizes up from what was typical, that's a much bigger tree, and there may not be enough of them. So maybe you could do more poles instead of bigger poles, think of like a line that might have 50 giant ones, maybe then you could have 75, put them closer together to hold support that weight. Obviously, utilities probably aren't really excited about that idea, buying more and redesigning things.

There's also you know, other materials. There's a lot of money going into concrete poles, there's a firm that's building new factories to build composite, almost like a plastic, fiberglass sort of thing. There's steel poles for like, the biggest the big transmission lines. There's things like that there's other materials, and there's companies that are looking at the situation saying, Well, you know, if they want poles that big Mother Nature's not making them fast enough. So we can cut in and get some market share with our different materials, which, you know, they're gonna be probably a lot more expensive, but they might have other qualities that make them preferable in certain uses to a wood pole.

Anisa Khalifa: And in terms of these tree farms, are they changing the way that they farm these in any way? Or is it just such a long term runway that there's nothing to be done at this point.

Ryan Dezember: There's some growers out there who will say, I want to grow poles, and they might plant longleaf pine, which was sort of the native species of the South. And they may specifically target that market, right, but there's not a ton of those. usually, you plant your loblolly, they grow and then you go through and say, okay, you know, for whatever reason, these over here big enough to be poles, these scraggly ones or crooked ones, they're going to the pulp mill, they're going to be Starbucks cups and beer boxes and Amazon delivery boxes. And then you know, the ones in the middle are going to various sawmills to become two by fours and dimensional lumber.

So there's not a ton you can do other than, you know, nowadays, there's, there's a lot of the genetics of these things, you know sort of the old fashioned breeding of plants to have certain characteristics. Over time, those have gotten really advanced to where trees are growing faster, straighter, no branches until the very top. I call them the Dr. Seuss trees, you know, with just a little bit of pine needles at top. And those are sort of intentionally planted and have been cultivated over time to have those features. So you know, you could have a thing in the future where more trees are growing to suit the final use, whether it's lumber or poles, but you're still at the mercy of Mother Nature.

Robert Bardon: So as we're walking down the road here, we have two different stands. They're both pine trees. One stand is…

Anisa Khalifa: Back in Raleigh, North Carolina, producer Charlie Shelton-Ormond is in the woods with forester Robert Bardon. And despite the serene setting and the gorgeous clear day, he can't ignore this utility pole pressure.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Do you have any perspectives from your expertise about how to deal with this influx and demand for these specific types of poles, it kind of seems like rock and a hard place, right? Where you want to increase this industry of renewable energy. But it demands a very specific tree, and there's only so many of those.

Robert Bardon: With active management, landowners can end up producing a few more poles per acre on their property. If we rely on our natural pine forests to regenerate stands that are cut, they tend to have, we'll say poor genetics. And so really for landowners that focus that are interested in more intensive management, focusing on their higher quality sites, planting genetically improved tree seedlings, doing intermediate stand management, will likely produce some more poles per acre than if they just let Mother Nature take the course.

Anisa Khalifa: If you want to check out journalist Ryan Dezember’s reporting in The Wall Journal, we’ve dropped a link in this week’s show notes. This episode of The Broadside was produced by Charlie Shelton-Ormond. Our editor is Jerad Walker.

Special thanks to Dr. Robert Bardon, Dr. Bob Abt, and the College of Natural Resources at NC State University.

The Broadside is a production of WUNC–North Carolina Public Radio. You can email us at If you enjoyed the show, leave us a rating, a review, or tell a friend to tell a friend! Thanks for listening y'all. We'll be back next week.