Intelligent Energy

When loss is more (for transmission towers)

Posting in Design

Contrary to popular belief, transmission towers cost more than underground power lines because in the long term they lose more electricity. Britain's Defense Secretary declares war on pylons.

Contrary to popular belief, transmission towers cost more than underground power lines. That’s partially because in the long term, pylons lose more electricity than do buried cables.

So suggests Britain’s Defense Secretary Liam Fox, who is leading his own defense of the countryside in Britain, battling against plans to construct some 400 miles of gargantuan transmission towers in scenic areas of the UK.

The company that would build them, National Grid, has said that burying cables underground costs 12-to-17 times more than stringing them along new pylons.

But Fox claims the opposite, noting that underground cables could in fact cost half of a pylon scheme.

In a letter to Energy and Climate Secretary Chris Huhne leaked to the press, “Dr. Fox cites research suggesting the lifetime cost of pylons could be double that of underground cables over 40 years,” the UK’S Daily Mail reports.

Fox did not elaborate on “lifetime costs”, but Tessa Munt, a Member of Parliament from Wells, England who also opposes pylons, did.

Appearing on a BBC radio call-in show in support of underground lines, she noted, “It’s absolutely clear from the figures that I’ve seen that the whole life costs are actually cheaper. Using underground methods, you can actually save energy. You can save about 5% of the losses that occur on overhead lines.”

Both Munt and Fox are MPs (in Britain’s parliamentary system, MPs serve in the government cabinet) who represent constituencies that are part of a planned 37-mile network of pylons that would connect England’s Hinkley Point nuclear plant on the southwest coast to an industrial port at Avonmouth. Munt and Fox view underground cables as well as subsea cables as viable alternatives.

Among their concerns is that the 150-foot pylons – far taller than the norm in Britain – would ruin scenery and destroy tourism. Munt says the towers would threaten 26,000 tourism-related jobs in her area, Somerset. She and Fox also say maintenance costs would be higher for pylons than for underground lines.

“My principle objection to pylons is they’re an old technology and we should be modernizing what we’re doing,” Munt said. “They’re not the solution for the next century, that’s for sure.” On a separate BBC radio show, she defended underground schemes. “This is the greenest way of doing things, it’s the most cost-effective way of doing things, and actually yes of course will protect the tourism that is absolutely critical in parts of the country that are going to be smashed to pieces by having these ghastly towers."

The countrywide plans for more pylons coincide with efforts to connect alternative energy sources like wind and nuclear to the grid and shrink Britain’s carbon footprint by reducing its substantial reliance on fossil fuels. They are facing heated opposition in other regions as well.

The pylons have gained support from some quarters, including from groups who believe that they are aesthetically pleasing.

Earlier this year the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Department of Energy and Climate Change launched a competition for creative transmission tower designs.

As the debate rages about how to transmit the new power that many people agree the country needs, one dearly departed physicist is probably turning in his grave. Over a century ago, Nikola Tesla advocated wireless transmission of electricity. While that idea has caught on as a way to power cordless toothbrushes and possibly electric cars, it still seems over the hills and far away from the public grid.

Photo: Toshihiro Oimatsu/Flickr

Related Posts:

Share this

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