The future of power poles: bendy?

Researchers at Iowa State University design a new, flexible power pole. Are antiquated transmission poles a security threat?
Written by Melissa Mahony, Contributor on

I've never given much thought to the technology behind a power-line pole. The only times I've been seriously mindful of them at all is while driving.

But Jon Rouse thinks about them plenty, and his biggest worries aren't wayward cars but powerful storms and energy infrastructure attacks. As an engineer at Iowa State University, he has designed a new pole to replace the very large, round and metal structures that ferry electricity across the country.

At up to 100 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter, these poles are sturdy. But they are still vulnerable to extreme weather. And when one of these giants fall, they often take a few others with them in a high-wired game of dominoes.

With more wind energy coming online in the next few decades, Rouse sees a need for more and better power poles in the near future.

Rouse's new rectangular pole, which he designed with a graduate student, has a hinge at its base. On each side of the hinge is a metal plate that stretches and buckles when put under large amounts of pressure. Essentially, the plates take the brunt of whatever force is being exerted on the pole. When damage occurs, power companies can replace the metal plates rather than the entire pole.

Of course, we don't want poles that are too bendy. So within the poles are tension cables that resist stretching. This helps keep the pole upright.

Rouse says in a statement:

If a structure can deform sufficiently, it can allow the rest of the system to use reserve strength from other structures. It allows the next pole down the line to share the load of ice, wind, a broken line or an attack, rather than forcing one pole to withstand the load on its own.

After testing their pole prototype with successful results, with help from the university'sElectric Power Research Center, the researchers are now seeking a patent for their technology.

Raising the poles doesn't require a crane, which makes for cheaper installation for power companies. The hinged poles might also negate the need for dead-end structures that help stop the downed-pole domino effect. According to the engineers, the utility industries are expressing interest.

Image: Flickr/jaxxon

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards