Why Australia’s Power Pole Crisis Risks Driving Up Energy Costs

Policy makers across the country could face a multi-million-dollar shortfall in maintenance with native hardwoods, used in more than 86% of electricity poles, under existential threat.

Tue 19 Mar 24


The cessation of native forestry operations in NSW will drive up electricity bills. The only question is, by how much?

Already, Victoria’s native industry is closed for business. And in Tasmania, more than 3,000 environmentalists marched through the streets of Hobart (on Saturday) calling for an end to native forestry, whilst NSW and Queensland, which will go to the polls later this year, are waiting in the wings.

However, aside from the loss of a green economy – which, according to accounting giant EY, is worth $2.9 billion in North-East NSW alone, a closure could cause chaos for the country’s “sleeping” power pole industry.

This afternoon, Wood Central spoke to an expert connected to Australia’s energy distribution network. The expert confirmed that the long-term supply of hardwood power poles—from NSW and Queensland—could be seriously threatened if native forest harvesting ceases in both jurisdictions.

“And that’s just new line establishment,” they said, adding that with the ongoing wild weather across the east coast of the country (which will only get worse thanks to climate change), “maintenance of existing infrastructure during storm activity is highly problematic.”

Globally, timber-based power poles are one of the most cost-effective and sustainable ways to carry electricity across the grid—footage courtesy of @areichartz.

According to the Australian Energy Regulator’s 2021 report, “Electricity network charges make up 40- 50% of a residential customer energy bill in 2020-21.” The report also adds that “Distribution networks account for the majority of costs (73-78 %), with transmission network costs (up to 21%) and metering costs making up the balance.”

For what it’s worth, the Australian Energy Regulator’s 2021 report does not appear to consider the potential cessation of the native forestry industry. 

That’s because timber power poles that line suburban streets across most Australian states and territories are almost invisible, as they have always been there. They carry the current that powers homes, roads, sports fields, playgrounds, communication towers, and mobile phones. 

“If the supply of timber poles stopped, in line with the shutdown of the native hardwood industry, then new poles would be needed, and the replacement would surely be steel, fibreglass, or concrete,” an expert told Wood Central this afternoon.

These concrete poles come at a cost, with industry experts confirming that concrete-based poles “cost between 2-3 times more than timber,” whilst steel is even higher at “3 to 5 times greater than the hardwood alternative.”  

“And that does not consider the issue of carbon sequestration as timber poles are carbon affixing sustainable units,” the expert said, adding that carbon data can be found in reports prepared by the NSW Department of Primary Industries and the Commonwealth equivalent.

“The alternative utility steel, fibreglass, and concrete poles are not carbon affixing sustainable units like timber,” they said.

At the end of life, discarded power poles are upcycled at Kennedy Timber, one of Australia’s leading examples of a circular economy in action – footage courtesy of @Remedial_services.

According to page 134 of the Australian Energy Regulator report, this additional cost will be constituted by an uplift in operating expenditure for network operators, “which will naturally be passed onto the business or household,” an expert told Wood Central.

This operating expense is a direct cost and does not consider the climate or energy costs of producing concrete or steel poles.  

“It seems that ideologists pushing for the end of native forestry operations in NSW (and Queensland) are unaware of or appear oblivious to the facts or consequences,” according to Jack Rodden-Green, an occasional columnist for this publication.

 “Like all fake history, facts rarely stop people from claiming that the “truth” is otherwise. It’s how cults work,'” Mr Rodden-Green said.

As it stands, there are eleven million different electricity customer connections Australia-wide, with the electricity network (amongst the most widespread in the world) long enough to circle the equator 23 times.

When it comes to the poles themselves, 86% are made from hardwood—sourced from Australia’s forests, certified to AS 2209, and expected to last up to 60 years thanks to specialised treatment. 

That equates to just under 9 billion hardwood poles (short scale), all sourced from forests certified to Australia’s National Standard for Sustainable Forest Management (AS / NZS 4708).

The RFA relates to North-East NSW, one of the most productive native hardware and softwood areas Australia-wide. (Image Credit: North East NSW Forestry Hub)
According to Timber NSW – the peak body for the state’s hardwood industry, North-East NSW is the home of one of the country’s most productive areas for power poles (Image Credit: North East NSW Forestry Hub)

According to one NSW utility estimate, replacing hardwood poles with concrete, steel, or fibreglass poles could run close to $25 million every year, and that’s just in NSW. The cost across the country is expected to increase after that.

That’s because materials other than timber are not fully compatible with the existing setup and may involve additional insulators and installation costs. “Due to their distance and availability, the importation of timber poles is a difficult and costly option,” according to another expert, who said that “it’s likely imported hardwood poles will come from deforested areas.”

Should Australia follow the EU in beefing up its Illegal Logging Legislation to match the European Union’s Deforestation Regulation, “importing timber poles could be impossible,” they said.

As it stands, “timber poles have a price advantage over alternate materials, as well as advantages in flexibility in use, natural insulation, compatibility with the existing infrastructure, carbon cycling, and sustainability over other materials like concrete, steel, and fibreglass.” 

But all that could change if Australia’s hardwood supply of poles from NSW and Queensland ceases. Electricity distributors must maintain poles and safe and reliable electricity distribution to consumers. However, following through with this and maintaining the network is a real challenge with an aging pole population.

“The shortfall of pole supply will exacerbate the maintenance of the current system and impede the development of distribution networks to carry networks for new renewable installations to consumers.”

  • Wood Central has contacted Australia’s largest power pole suppliers for additional comment. Wood Central is a neutral platform and will not take an editorial stance over Australia’s native harvesting (or logging) debate. However, in the matter of public interest, it will post opinion articles and invite subject matter experts from all sides to provide contributors, who will be fact-checked before publication.


  • 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.


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