Grid Maintenance

Features - Other Recyclables

Maintaining the electrical grid and tying in new alternative energy sites have helped provide feedstock for wire choppers.

October 21, 2011

It's not always easy for utility companies to make the news—unless it's because severe weather or another phenomenon has caused a service outage over a widespread area.

One recent example that bucked that trend occurred in the United Kingdom in September, when publications and news broadcasts displayed the finalists for an alternative design for electrical grid towers or pylons in that country. The new towers are necessary to bring power from new wind farm sites in Scotland to the rest of the nation.

It is a situation also occurring in parts of the United States, where wind farms and other alternative energy sites are joining the existing electrical grid, providing markets for electrical wire and cable.

Within the scrap recycling segment, alternative energy generation as well as traditional maintenance programs for the electrical and telecommunications grids are helping to provide scrap materials for the operators of America's wire chopping plants.

Weather Repo
Mark Twain observed long ago that "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."

Utility companies and their sub-contractors can't prevent bad weather; but, once it hits, they have to do a lot more than talk about it.

In 2011, Hurricane Irene presented one of the foremost examples of severe weather that required a vigorous response from power companies.

According to a report on the website of Electric Light & Power magazine (, East Coast power provider Dominion responded to service calls at some 8,500 locations related to Irene's Category 1 or stronger winds.

Other power providers, such as First Energy and JCP&L, also had to restore service to hundreds of thousands of people.

The immediate concern in such circumstances is to quickly and safely restore power. A secondary concern is the disposition of scrap wire and cable caused by downed lines and excess wire and cable from the rewiring process.

An extreme example of weather-related wire and cable generation was provided by Warren Goldstein of Canada's Lorbec Metals in the story "Refined Outlook," from the April 2008 edition of Recycling Today.

Looking back at Quebec ice storm of 1998, Goldstein recalled, "We were responsible for hauling and processing 2,000 tons or more of aluminum wire and cable. Some of our employees seemed to be working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for about three months."

The results from Hurricane Irene are less clear, though a news item on the Hartford Courant website says some 100 miles of outdoor electrical wire were replaced in Connecticut alone.

Standard and Alternative

Wire choppers also have been gaining access to materials through power grid maintenance programs and from new wire and cable tied to new alternative energy generation points.

On this front, Duke-American Transmission Co. (DATC,, Charlotte, N.C., recently disclosed a list of its power transmission projects, including seven new transmission line projects in five Midwestern states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin).

According to the company, these projects will fill gaps in the existing transmission grid and improve electric system reliability. Some aspects of the projects also tie in to the delivery of new renewable energy resources.

"The DATC projects include more than 1,300 circuit miles of 345-kilovot lines and 550 miles of 500-kilovolt high-voltage direct-current lines," according to the company. "The individual projects range from 65 to 696 miles and have a total cost of about $4 billion."

These projects will be constructed in phases during the next 10 years, pending approval from regulators in each of the states in question.

The electric power industry is making its pitch with legislators and the public that revamping and expanding the electric grid will be an economic engine for the next several years.

A commissioned study conducted by The Brattle Group (, Cambridge, Mass., and released in May of 2011 claims, "Assuming the elimination or reduction of certain barriers to the planning, permitting and cost recovery associated with transmission development, the study estimates that 150,000 to 200,000 full-time jobs could be created annually in the U.S. alone over the coming two decades by expanding and upgrading the grid."

The report sees the need for more than 22,500 circuit miles of transmission line replacement or construction between 2011 and 2015. Brattle estimates that 26 percent of that total ties in to new alternative energy sources, but the largest share (48 percent) is to help make the existing grid more reliable.

The federal Bonneville Power Administration, Portland, Ore., is among those preparing new transmission lines. The agency announced that it is beginning work in mid-September on a 28-mile set of high-voltage power lines in the state of Washington that will help it transmit some 4,000 megawatts of wind energy.

Underwater transmission cables are also being proposed in places where offshore wind farms are planned, such as from a proposed site 13 miles offshore from New York City at the western tip of Long Island.

On a much more massive scale is a proposed 1,100-mile transmission line that would run across southern Wyoming and southern Idaho. According to the website of the Glenrock Independent, "The Gateway West line would add 3,000 megawatts of transmission capacity [and] is the biggest transmission line project proposal in the U.S. in decades. The companies (Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power) say the line is needed to serve present and future needs of customers, enhance electric system reliability and transmit electricity generated from new and existing resources, including wind."

Measured by dollar amount, sales of new wire and cable appeared to be healthier in 2010 compared with the previous year.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, some $3.1 billion of power industry wire and cable were sold in 2010 compared with $2.1 billion in 2009. Some of that disparity may have been caused by higher unit pricing rather than strictly by a volume increase.

Census Bureau data indicates a much smaller increase in telephone wire and cable from $1.1 billion in 2009 to $1.2 billion in 2010.

A Hot Item
For the past two years, the recyclers who have worked to procure wire and cable scrap have experienced steady to strong pricing for copper and aluminum scrap, though a copper pricing downturn in late September has been the cause of recent concern. On Sept. 22, COMEX copper pricing fell below $3.50 per pound for the first time in a year.

As long as pricing does not plunge too far too fast, wire processors are likely to seek a margin that can keep their wire chopping lines profitable and continuing to operate.

A well-run wire chopping plant can produce desirable grades of copper chops that can still yield one of the best per-pound payoffs that a scrap processor will receive.

Considering that most of the recyclers in today's market can recall the late 1990s, when copper was trading at just 70 to 75 cents per pound, it will take a steep drop in pricing and a distressing lack of demand to shut down many wire chopping plants.


The author is editorial director of Recycling Today and can be contacted at Assistant Editor Kelley Stoklosa,, helped compile and update information for the facilities list.