Life Cycle Assessment Study Shows Replacing Wood Utility Poles with Steel Significantly Lowers Key Environmental Impacts

A detailed life cycle assessment (LCA) study commissioned by the Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI), a business unit of the American Iron and Steel Institute, finds when comparing overall environmental performance, galvanized steel utility poles outperform wood poles in key environmental measures. The peer-reviewed study, conducted in compliance with international LCA standards (ISO-14040-series), is the most comprehensive environmental assessment of its kind to date, bringing a new level of transparency to the comparative performance of these two material choices.

“Every material choice has environmental consequences at some point during its manufacture, use and disposal,” said Lawrence W. Kavanagh, president of SMDI. “Manufacturers have a responsibility to know what these consequences are in order to identify improvement opportunities, while simultaneously helping customers make the best informed decisions. We are pleased to be able to share the results of this study with our customers, demonstrating steel poles have superior environmental performance for a wide range of indicators.”

The study compared the use of galvanized steel and wood utility poles in the southeastern United States over a 40-year time horizon. It stands apart from previous studies by applying advanced LCA methods to ensure a more comprehensive assessment and reporting of the full range of potential environmental impacts associated with both galvanized steel and wood, including local and regional ecological impacts. Among its findings, the study showed replacing wood utility poles with galvanized steel will likely result in lower levels of greenhouse gas and aerosol emissions associated with global climate change, a lower burden on critical energy resources, reduced impacts on the habitats of many threatened and endangered species, and reduced impacts associated with hazardous emissions and wastes. The primary drivers for these findings are the longer lifespan of steel poles, high steel recycling rates, and the overall ecological and land use impacts of growing, harvesting and replanting the forests used to produce wood poles.

The study considered 45-foot-tall, Class 2/Grade B distribution poles and included the production, installation, maintenance and disposal of the poles. It assessed wood poles made from southern yellow pine grown in the southeastern region of the United States and treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA), a typical practice. The steel poles in the study were produced using North American hot-rolled steel coil and were hot-dip galvanized.

The study found replacing wood poles with steel poles resulted in several significant environmental benefits, including:

  • Lower greenhouse gas and aerosol emissions associated with global climate change.
  • Lower energy resource depletion values.
  • Lower impacts to terrestrial biomes.
  • Reduced hazardous emissions and wastes.

The study was conducted by SCS Global Services, a global leader in third-party environmental and sustainability certification, auditing, testing and standards development for nearly 30 years. SCS programs span a wide cross-section of sectors, recognizing exemplary performance in natural resource management, green building, product manufacturing, food and agriculture, retailing and more. SCS is a Certified B Corporation™, reflecting its commitment to socially and environmentally responsible business practice.

For more information or to view the study’s Executive Summary, click here.


The Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI), a business unit of the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), grows and maintains the use of steel through strategies that promote cost-effective solutions in the automotive, construction and container markets, as well as for new growth opportunities in emerging steel markets. For more news or information, visit www.smdisteel.org or follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/smdisteel.  

The steel utility distribution pole program is conducted under the Construction Market Council of the Steel Market Development Institute. The investor companies of the Construction Market Council include AK Steel Corporation, ArcelorMittal Dofasco, ArcelorMittal USA LLC, Nucor Corporation, SSAB Americas and United States Steel Corporation.