When Hurricane Wilma blew through south Florida in late October, terrorizing the tropics with winds greater than 100 mph, about 75 percent of Florida Power & Light Co. customers - about 3.4 million - were left in the dark.
FPL lost 11,000 power poles, each of which cost between $500 and $2,000 to replace.
In 2004, after Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne ransacked the Sunshine State, FPL spent more than $890 million putting its system back together, including replacement of about 13,000 poles.
Officials at Resin Systems Inc., an Edmonton, Alberta-based maker of composite utility poles, said they have a solution. Using polyurethane and glass-fiber reinforcement, Resin Systems officials tout their new product as having the strength of concrete, steel and wood, and the durability to outlast all of them.
It's a product, officials said, that could ease the post-storm cleanup for companies like FPL, or utilities picking up from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The PU and fiber composite poles will not break, split, bend or crumble like their competitors, the maker said.
While FPL does not use the composite poles, FPL spokesman Bill Swank said the nation's fourth-largest electric utility always will be interested in new products that potentially can better company performance.
Using a pultrusion process, Resin Systems manufactures 17-foot modules, interchangeable pieces that are used to construct power poles. Each module amounts to a 15-foot section of pole. Two feet of each piece slide into or over one another. So a utility might use three modules to construct a 45-foot power pole.
Resin Systems makes the poles through its RS Technologies division. The company has branded its product RStandard.
The poles are designed to meet the National Electric Safety Code and tested per the American National Standards Institute.
While virtually any size pole is possible due to its modular assembly, RS Technologies is focusing now on transmission lines - the larger, typically 75-foot poles, used in transferring high-voltage power over great distances.
Concrete and steel most commonly are used for transmission lines.
Distribution lines, the smaller ones used to feed individual neighborhoods, generally are held up by wood poles. RS Technologies believes there's a market for its product in distribution-line-specific applications as well, but for now will focus on the larger structures.
About 25 utilities in the United States and Canada have RStandard poles out in the field, including Southern California Edison which, like FPL, is among the country's largest.
The European Union has ordered $26 million worth of the poles.
Resin Systems has three manufacturing plants in Canada and employs more than 100 people.
For Joe Rempe, principal engineer for Tacoma Power, a subsidiary of Tacoma Public Utilities in Washington state, the modular nature of the poles is the product's selling point.
Tacoma Power has a small percentage of the composite poles in use, and is likely to add more in time, particularly when pole replacement typically would require tearing up private property.
``At 15 feet, two or three guys can move these very easily,'' Rempe said. ``When I saw the approach - a segmented pole - my first thoughts were that it was very, very attractive.''
Because of their length, the pieces can be shipped using a common carrier, making transportation much easier than full-length 45-foot to 80-foot poles.
Their indestructibility helps too.
``We don't anticipate ever having to go back to that pole to do anything for, say, 60-80 years,'' Rempe said. ``We may have someone come around just to say, `Well, it's still there.' ''
The key for growing RS Technologies' market share will be selling utilities on the concept of lifecycle costs for poles rather than the first-time investment.
``We have to find forward-thinking utilities,'' said Mark Warren, Resin System's chief technology officer.
Regulators, it seems, are taking notice as well.
Rempe, a member of a subcommittee for the National Electric Safety Code, said it's likely that the 2007 version of the code will include language that treats fiber-reinforced composites the same as concrete and steel.
Warren said RS Technologies' PU composite has a world of possibility, but the company needs to continue developing its niche products if it wants to maintain fiscal health and make inroads in the power-distribution industry.
The company also manufactures composite rollers for industrial conveyor systems.
``There's a myriad of opportunities you can get bogged down in,'' Warren said. ``The only way we can be successful is to stay focused.''