Posted: February 11th, 2013 by Peter Botsoe
Comments (9)

Guest Blog: Viewing the T-Pylon in the landscape

By  Sarah Gibson, GILLESPIES LLP

As a landscape architect involved in routeing high voltage overhead electricity lines for more years than I care to remember,  I have long felt that pylon design in the UK should be reviewed in light of development in  mainland Europe where more contemporary, some might even say funky, designs criss-cross some of the most beautiful and pristine landscapes.

European designers and engineers seem to be positively encouraged to be more imaginative and ambitious in their design aspirations than back here in the UK. So I was very pleased to hear about the design competition being run by the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and National Grid. My initial response back in 2011 when the competition was announced was great, but given that the visual impact of a pylon arises both from its design but also from its relationship with the landscape in which it is located, why weren’t landscape architects better represented on the judging panel? OK, moan over!

Faced with apprehension that the winning design might be an ‘iconic architectural statement’ – perhaps attractive and ground breaking in its own right, but not necessarily capable of preserving the beauty of the British countryside – I waited with baited breath.

A quick poll of colleagues in the office when the short-listed results were announced, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not reach unanimous conclusion. Both Bystrup’s T-pylon and the Silhouette received equal support. Both appeared to be a radical departure from the traditional lattice pylon and were simple and relatively unobtrusive in design. In the end, the decision to develop the T-pylon was supported by the judging panel and, pleasingly has received favourable press coverage. 

It is sometimes said that we in the UK are a traditional bunch and conservative (with a small c!). Perhaps that is why we have 88,000 lattice pylons in this country – a design which is tried and tested for nearly a century that has been refined over time with seemingly minimal change. National Grid’s move to develop a new pylon design is a long overdue step in the right direction. After all, as we all know, pylons in the landscape evoke strong feeling and rarely good ones. A new pylon design won’t dispel these views but will hopefully lessen them.

But it’s not always been this way. Believe it or not, in the 1930s, when pylons first started striding across our countryside, so popular was the imagery conjured by sleek grey steel and the modern technology it represented, that it inspired a school of poetry. Even today, its boxy geometric, lattice structure is still a thing of architectural beauty for some photographers and members of the Pylon Appreciation Society. Pylons have even been immortalised in film, including the 1998 British film ‘Among Giants’. Here the protagonists Rachel Griffiths and the late Pete Postlethwaite are pylon painters who find love among the high-voltage transmission wires in Yorkshire – perhaps unthinkable today given the concerns sometimes expressed where new high voltage connections are needed!

Anyway I digress, so back to the T-pylon and perhaps a new pylon appreciation society. As a landscape practitioner what’s my view?

In recent consultations on a National Grid project we were able to show people visualisations of the T-pylon. The consensus view was that, whilst people would still prefer the connection to be placed underground, the T-pylon was an improvement on the traditional design because it was smaller, attractive and less urban in appearance. I found this very encouraging. 

The central challenge of the pylon design competition was to develop a design which was not only functional and sustainable, but also more capable of being integrated into the landscape. For the following reasons, I think the T-pylon can achieve this:

  • At circa 35m, it is at least 15m shorter than a standard 400,000 V lattice pylon, although at least 10m wider (when measured to the outer edges of the diamond). 
  • The geometric simplicity of the monopole and single suspension arm is architecturally elegant and the introduction of a crossarm with a slight uplift or ‘smile’ makes the structure more appealing. 
  • The T shape of the pylon is striking and will undoubtedly become the iconic symbol of the new pylon family.  

Essentially, I think that the simple and elegant appearance of the T-pylon offers a fantastic opportunity to break away from the traditional and create a new generation of overhead lines which are more sympathetic to the UK’s diverse countryside. The possibilities for using different finishes (galvanised steel, Corten steel and a variety of paint colours) offer potential for the new pylon family to blend into a variety of landscapes. Of course there are likely to be circumstances where, in landscape and visual terms, using a conventional lattice pylon may be more appropriate – for instance where a new line will parallel an existing lattice line, or where a short new section of overhead line is needed in an area which predominantly has lattice lines already.

The challenge over the coming months is to reassure the public that National Grid is committed to developing and offering the T-pylon as an option alongside existing lattice pylon designs and other technologies (e.g. cables) to connect new low carbon generation.

Comments

  1. Paul /

    underground lines in the proper way forward , NOT pylons .

    Bury the cables, – this is what people want you to do.

    Reply
    • Peter Botsoe /

      Hi there Paul, thanks for your note.

      As a regulated transmission system owner and operator we need to consider the archaeological, environmental, technological and cost implications of installing new infrastructure. In developing new transmission routes, we always consult with statutory bodies, people and communities, to come up with an appropriate and balanced solution that takes these factors into account.

      We are legally obliged to connect new generators to our network, including low carbon generation, that want to export power onto the transmission system.

      Putting cables underground is aesthetically pleasing, but considerably more expensive than erecting pylons. We already spend a significant amount of money maintaining existing cables, pylons and pipes. And since customers pay to support the maintenance of our infrastructure, we’re committed to coming up with an efficient and economic transmission network solution.

      Our solution for new connections will be based on either overhead or underground technology, or a mix of the two, and will factor in our stakeholder consultations and the proposed location(s). We’ll submit an application with our solution to the Planning Inspectorate (www.planningportal.gov.uk).

      The Planning Inspectorate will then make a recommendation to the Secretary of State who will make the final decision.

      Regardless of the chosen solution, our regulator, Ofgem (http://www.ofgem.gov.uk), will continue to require that we always have a secure supply of gas and electricity and that we deliver it to our customers safely, reliably and at a competitive cost.

      Reply
  2. David Holland /

    It never ceases to amaze me just how myopic the view of the industry and the government is on the pylons issue. These decisions on how to effect a grid connection always have a significant economic aspect. But that aspect is viewed predominantly from the energy sector’s point of view. The economic impact assessment never truly takes in the wider socio economic ones and these can be vast. Instead, decisions are taken within the energy ministry when perhaps they should be taken more centrally – perhaps by the Deputy PM, considering the broad impacts of pylons for UKPLC. And then there are the flawed National Policy Statements which include fundamentally questionable assumptions in the Holford Rules which suggest that one line of pylons spoils a landscape, two lines spoils it a little more. Sadly this also is wrong because in some settings, two lines has a catastrophic impact on amenity value and decimates other economic activity in the area. NG’s response to Paul above is quite normal given its source but there is no getting around the fact that people do not want the countryside despoiled with pylons and so rather than faddling with T pylons, most of us would prefer NG to embrace and develop underground transmission and bring the costs down through greater implementation. And then even if it still costs more, then NG’s own research shows that the public are willing to pay for transmission to be put underground.

    Reply
  3. Darren J Sage /

    I peruse the developments in respect to thew new pylon design with interest and note that there is always going to be those that will protest that power lines should be put underground, whether that is ‘NIMBYism’ (I suppose it depends on how large your yard is) or is based on ignorance – I can’t imagine that some land owners would be happy with the amount of disruption underground lines cause and that’s after they’ve been put in.

    I wondered if we could get an idea how much our bills would increase if all electricity was transmitted underground?

    There is something I have always viewed with interest and it is this; Whilst there is a need to make a transmission line as short as possible (‘as the crow flies’), why is it that reality is never the case? I know there are geographical/environmental concerns but some of these lines (take the relatively new 400kv line from York to Teeside) oscillate from one side of the A19 to the over and back again thus maybe adding many more miles to a route? The other oddity is why would you demolish a set of pylons, only to build new towers at a later date – a 275kv line used to run along the York to Teeside route – some of the original towers still run to the substation just outside York?

    As for these new towers, I await with interest to see how the testing goes and what restrictions this design may bring (angulation, areas subjected to higher wind speeds, especially with there only being one point where the conductor bundles are attached to the tower.). I think there were more aesthetically pleasing designs that came out from the RIBA competition (and there were some monstrosities too – although it doesn’t take long to find similar monstrosities are out there, in use!) but I am now intrigued to see how the T Pylon pans out.

    Reply
    • Peter Botsoe /

      Hi Darren,

      thanks for the post. Regarding your question of underground electricity costs…extremely difficult question to answer presuming that you are not only referring to transmission voltages but also low voltage lines…For your information, the IET/PB undertook a survey of transmission circuit costs and compiled a report (http://www.theiet.org/factfiles/transmission.cfm) which was issued in January 2012. National Grid also provided its view of the report (http://www.nationalgrid.com/NR/rdonlyres/4D9D5EFD-885D-4BDB-84F3-26339BBD08B0/51954/IETFinalFeb2012.pdf).

      W.r.t. line routeing, you’re right that geography, environment are a significant issue, but so is archaeology and land consents. We aim to develop new infrastructure with recognition of the cumulative impact on amenity. In situations where we have taken down old lines and erected new, the likely driver would have been the need to install stronger pylons to carry more power. Another possible reason is that some of the pylons had execessive amounts of corroded steelwork such that it was more cost effective to replace the complete structure. Each situation is assessed individually to ensure that the most appropriate solution is implemented.

      On some of the queries you’ve raised e.g. testing the T-pylon, we’ll keep you appraised of how things progress with new articles on the blog. On the brief issues you raise, the following information should help…angulation, the pylons have been designed for 10, 30, 60 and 90 degrees; extreme wind – the structure is designed to cope with 50yr winds of +80mph; in areas where the wind can theoretically result in excessive swing of the suspension pylon diamond, we install an insulated stabiliser bar to fix the diamond to the mast; single attachment point – a M72 bolt rated for loads in excess of 1000tonne supports each diamond…we don’t expect much wear on this component but are seeking to develop a condition monitoring methodology from ground or at height.

      Glad to know you’ll be following our development activities. Thanks

      Reply
  4. David Holland /

    Given that we do experience what you call 50 year winds in many areas of great natural beauty, I feel you should post a photograph of a T pylon with stabilised earrings so that we can all see just how unsightly these things are likely to become in the windswept, stark and beautiful landscapes that might host them as a result of more remote, low carbon generator location.

    Reply
    • Peter Botsoe /

      Hi David,

      thanks for your post. W.r.t. the 50yr winds, if the calculated swing of the earrings exceeds 45degrees whilst supporting the nominal 360m of wire between each pylon, weighing in at nominally 15tonnes, then we’d stabilise the earrings. The stabiliser is essentially a horizontal insulated member fixing the earring to the mast. The pylon with stabiliser also enables us to turn shallow corners (up to 10degrees) with a pylon which is much lighter in weight than the +30 degree tension pylons.

      I’ll try and post some photmontages of the T-pylons in a neutral landscape in the coming days as well as an article on the Tension pylon recently erected in Denmark.

      Thanks for your post.

      Reply
  5. G Ellison /

    There are a considerable number of existing pylons where the new pylons may look much better but I doubt there are any proposals to change these as there would be no immediate cost benefit to the energy company.

    Underground is what people want and would pay for this as mentioned above. Profit and cost cutting is what this is all about but leave a legacy of scarring our landscape for future generations on your conscience.

    Reply

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