New life cycles for electric poles

Published on Friday, 25 June 2021

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Power line poles play a fundamental role in distributing electricity throughout the city, but daily they are exposed to different threats that can leave them disabled, such as collisions or weather events, or end their service life. Whatever the case, the materials become waste.

Every year, in accordance with current environmental regulations, Enel Distribución Chile disposes of around 4,000 poles in authorized landfills. The objective of the company's multidisciplinary team is to give concrete a new life cycle, recycle its materials and use them in the manufacture of new poles and / or as an input for stabilizers.

The original project, which aimed to reuse the concrete from removed poles as gravel and supplies for Enel Distribución Chile's civil works, went through several stages. Initially, by a pre-selection at national level along with many other initiatives, resulting in a finalist. Then, recognizing its potential, it was presented at the I & Nnovation Week in 2020 along with 32 other proposals, in the category “New Circular Life for Grid Assets”, standing out as one of the three winners.

Rethink from design

After its win at 2020 I&Nnovation Week, the team wanted to go a bit further and analyzed how the project could increase circularity by redesigning the entire process, from pole manufacturing to end of life. Thus, the idea of using a percentage of the recycled concrete for manufacturing new poles was born. This has brought with it different challenges that have had to be overcome as implementation progressed.

The first challenge was to find an aggregates company that would separate the concrete from the steel reinforcement of the poles and also crush it to a specific particle size, so that it could be used as a material for manufacturing the new poles. Once they found this company, they needed to have two sieves manufactured, which are structures that enable the recovery of concrete of the right size, which will subsequently be used in laboratory tests.

“Thanks to the mutual collaboration between Enel Distribución Chile and one of its pole suppliers, which is supporting and collaborating with us through its technical experience in the field, we have been able to carry out the different tests and studies required.”

– said Mónica Céspedes, an environmental specialist who is leading the project.

The initiative has the support of an accredited laboratory that will help to identify the maximum volume of recycled concrete that can be used in manufacturing new poles, in accordance with prevailing technical standards. This will subsequently make it possible to carry out technical and mechanical tests on the poles made from recycled concrete.

“Also, with the studies we will be able to estimate the useful life of the poles made with recycled concrete and know how many times we will be able to reuse that concrete to manufacture new poles.”

– Céspedes said.

Innovation for all

The team started with an idea that has been evolving and changing its focus, adapting to new challenges with a circular economy perspective and innovating through research and collaborative work. The implementation of this project will have a positive environmental impact by reducing emissions of particulate matter into the atmosphere and through the necessary humidification to control suspended dust by using gravel on the surface of the bare ground. It will also reduce the consumption of natural resources such as gravel and sand that has to be bought by taking out loans. 

The initiative meets Sustainable Development Goal 12 "Ensure Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns", thanks to the application of the circular economy principle in the value chain.

Natalia Correa, head of circular economy at Enel Chile, said that the circular poles project perfectly aligns with the company's strategy, since it recycles one of the most highly-used materials by Enel Distribución Chile and incorporates circularity from the design stage.

“On the one hand, it integrates the first principle of the circular economy, as it prevents more than 5,101.6 tons of valuable materials from becoming waste. On the other hand, it aims to narrow the technical cycle of materials, by reducing the extraction of natural aggregates thanks to the incorporation of recycled concrete in the manufacturing of new poles.”

– Natalia said.

Correa believes it is not possible to be a sustainable company if you do not carry out innovative projects and go beyond the norm. "Throughout history, it has been proven that companies that do not innovate disappear. Innovation is fundamental to achieving sustainability and it is in our DNA," she said. 

Enel Distribución Chile recognizes the environmental, social and economic opportunity of investing in research and development for the circular economy. With this project, it seeks to be the first electric power company to manufacture poles with recycled material and also the first to generate circularity from pole waste materials.

Learn more about Enel Chile's circular economy by clicking on this link