30 Billion Reasons Why America Must Fix Timber Pole Network!

A large share of the energy network is more than 60 years old, and is now causing significant fire risk nationwide.

Wed 01 May 24


The United States is grappling with a growing power pole crisis, with investigators blaming aging infrastructure for many of the country’s worst wildfires.

And the problem is set to worsen as climate change exacerbates challenges faced by the nation’s aging electrical infrastructure—potentially leading to utility companies nationwide going out of business.

It comes after one thousand survivors of an Oregon wildfire yesterday lodged a US $30 billion lawsuit against PacificCorp—one of the largest suits in history—over the 2020 Labor Day fire ignited from fallen power lines.

The latest claim comes just weeks after a coalition of timber companies, led by Oregon-based Collins Pine Co., filed a US $225 million lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric Co over damages caused by a 2021 fire sparked by a falling power line.

Warren Buffett is a long-term supporter of utilities – with Berkshire Hathaway owning 92% of the now under-siege PacificCorp, the second-largest utility company in Oregon. Footage courtesy of @BuffettAnswers.

PacificCorp – owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway – has been besieged by rolling court cases over its aging utility infrastructure, leading Mr Buffer to warn that wildfires could threaten the survival of utility outcomes across the United States.

“Whatever the case, the final result for the utility industry may be ominous: Certain utilities might no longer attract the savings of American citizens and will be forced to adopt the public-power model,” Mr Buffett said in a letter to shareholders. Adding that “when the dust settles, America’s power needs and the consequent capital expenditure will be staggering.”

Why the US utility network is now in crisis

Last month, the United States NPR reported that a fallen power line caused Texa’s largest wildfire, whilst Hawai’s Maui fires, which last year ravaged the island, have also been blamed on “bare and obsolete power lines.”

These fires have led investigators to flag that the United States power grid, dubbed the world’s largest machine, is in dire need of upgrading its two-plus million miles of primarily Southern yellow pine power poles.

The US power grid is the world’s largest machine, supported by more than 150 million treated Southern yellow, Douglas fir and Western Red Cedar power poles. Footage courtesy of @PracticalEngineeringChannel.

The vast majority of the US’s electric grid was built 60 to 70 years ago, and that’s a problem, according to Rob Gramlich of consulting firm Grid Strategies, who said: “The lines, the transformers, the towers are often very old.”

In addition, “many utilities don’t have tech to know when power lines are overheating or sagging, potentially onto brush or trees,” according to Julia Simon from NPA, who said, “Those things spark fires.” And then there’s climate change, according to Michael Wara of Stanford University, who said global warming increases the risk of large wildfires because the brush is drier, making more fuel for the fire.

As reported in the LA Times overnight, a 2022 investigation by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found that the Dixie fire, the second largest in California’s history, “was caused by a tree contacting electrical distribution lines owned and operated” by the utility company.

According to the 2021 claim against Pacific Gas & Electric Co, timber companies argue that the fire, which burned through 1 million acres of forest in the Butte, Plumas, Shasta, Lassen and Tehama counties, incinerated 55,000 acres of their property, including “commercial-grade timber, trees of many species and ages (some over 200 years old), roads, structures, bridges, culverts, and many of the research plots.”

Collins Pine Co. claims that the fire burned through an additional 500 acres of land for which it owns timber rights, that its mill was “significantly injured”, and that “its timber supply was ruined.

After the 2021 fires, NBC Bay Area learned Pacific Gas and Electric told state regulators it certified that tens of thousands of its power poles had been safety tested, including many in high-fire-threat areas, but now it can’t find proof they were inspected. Footage courtesy of @NBCBayArea.

The complaint alleges that PG&E “negligently, recklessly, and willfully failed to properly, safely, and prudently inspect, repair, maintain, and operate” its electrical equipment and surrounding vegetation, including hazardous trees.

According to the claim, “Had Defendants acted responsibly, the Dixie Fire could have been prevented.” PG&E spokesperson JD Guidi confirmed that the company “is aware the suit has been filed, but we have yet to be served.”

It comes as the California Public Utilities Commission fined PG&E $45 million in January for its role in the fire, which was attributed to a Douglas fir tree that “fell and struck energised conductors owned and operated” by the utility company. The penalty was the latest in a long string of fines, lawsuits, and legislation now holding PG&E accountable for fires its equipment ignited.

Timber-based poles have been an essential part of North American communication and electrical infrastructure for over a century. More than 180 million poles across the 50 states are made from three different species: Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, and southern pine.

A Rayonier forester takes you on-site to inspect high-value timber that can be used for utility poles or piles for docks and piers. The trees have to be hand-measured to be cut to a specific size. Footage courtesy of @rayonierinc.4618.

Like Australia, US utility companies prefer treated-timber poles – over steel and concrete alternatives because they are inexpensive, long-lasting, strong, durable, and easy to install. 

“Wood is a natural, renewable polymer composite material that withstands overloading from iced wires and heavy wind,” according to a US utility expert who spoke to Wood Central today.

The expert nonetheless added that the public is pushing to upgrade the system and hold utility companies responsible for maintenance. “There’s this unwillingness in this industry to adapt,” according to Cody Berne, a lawyer in Portland, Oregan, who spoke to the New York Times last month and said the behaviour of utility companies “is criminal incompetence.”

For its measure, utility executives say the rapid escalation of climate-driven disasters has made managing millions of miles of towers, poles and wires “certainly more difficult.”

“Past risk is not a good indicator of future risk anymore,” according to Scott Aaronson, senior vice president of security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute, a utility industry trade group, who said, “We are seeing a rapid change in the extremely severe weather. It is daunting.”


  • Jason Ross

    Jason Ross, publisher, is a 15-year professional in building and construction, connecting with more than 400 specifiers. A Gottstein Fellowship recipient, he is passionate about growing the market for wood-based information. Jason is Wood Central's in-house emcee and is available for corporate host and MC services.


Related Articles