Intelligent Energy

My beautiful transmission tower

Posting in Design

The UK calls for architects and designers to turn electricity pylons into works of art, and allay fears of ruining the countryside.

Whether a power plant generates electricity from the sootiest coal or taps it from minty clean renewables, there’s still the potentially unsightly task of distributing it.

Even solar and wind farms can run afoul of environmentalists, as the public objects to running transmission lines and towers through back yards and beauty spots. That’s certainly true in the UK, where opposition is mounting to several proposed new lines.

So the Royal Institute of British Architects has decided that it’s time to give the poor maligned electricity pylon - as the towers are called in Britain - a whole new image.

It’s running a competition for the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the National Grid, seeking creative designs. No more Godzilla-like 50-meter (164-foot) towers looming over pleasant hills and valleys- a design that dates back to 1927.

“The familiar steel lattice tower design has barely changed since then,” RIBA president Ruth Reed points out in a joint press release announcing the competition today.

In the same release, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne notes that the UK will need the equivalent of 20 new power stations by 2020. “It’s crucial that we seek the most acceptable ways of accommodating infrastructure in our natural and urban landscapes,” Huhne says. “I hope the pylon design competition will ignite creative excitement, but also help the wider public understand the scale of the energy challenge ahead of us.”

Adds Nick Winser, National Grid executive director UK, “Much of the new low-carbon generation is planned for remote or coastal areas, which means new infrastructure will be needed to get the electricity we need to our homes, businesses and vehicles.  While underground connection will be a viable solution in some sensitive locations, new and replacement pylons will be needed and National Grid is equally keen to support the development of the most visually acceptable overhead solutions.”

A similar appeal in Iceland last year generated several imaginative designs, including a veritable steel sculpture of a giant man and woman holding up electricity cables (pictured), by Brookline, Mass.-based Choi + Shine Architects.

Don’t expect opposition to go away just because pylons might turn into works of art. A report in today’s Guardian newspaper notes that the Campaign to Protect Rural England says the National Grid has overstated the costs of underground alternatives. “National Grid estimates that running the cables underground costs £15m to £20m a mile, 10 times more than using pylon. (But) a CPRE report says that experience in Denmark suggests it could cost £6m a mile to lay an underground cable,” the Guardian states.

But get your ideas in now at the RIBA website. The competition closes July 12 and judges will draw up a short list of finalists a few weeks after that. They will then chose final designs by early September and display them online and at London’s Victoria and Albert museum before picking an “overall winner” in late October. They are also awarding a £10,000 ($16,100) prize that “will be shared amongst the winning candidates,” and they will “give consideration” to using the winning designs, the press release says.

Judges include DECC’s Huhne –who chairs the panel – National Grid’s Winser, Victoria and Albert director Sir Mark Jones, architects Sir Nicholas Grimshaw and Bill Taylor, engineer Chris Wise, journalist Jonathan Glancey, and a yet-to-be named representative from RIBA.

Bye-bye Godzilla, hello Pylon Man?

Photo: Choi + Shine Architects [via Electronic Beats]

Note: This story updates an earlier version, adding the name of  tower designer Choi + Shine Architects.

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure