/ Home & Energy

Pylons – should they be beautiful or cost effective?

Pylons against a grey sky

Whether you think they’re an indelible blight on the landscape or a part of our beautiful countryside, pylons are here to stay. So should we redesign them into works of art or keep the cost effective ones we’ve got?

There are currently 88,000 pylons in the UK – 22,000 of them on the main National Grid transmission network.

The original steel lattice design, perfected by Sir Reginald Blomfield (who, incidentally, also designed the Prime Minister’s country residence at Chequers) is now heading for its 85th birthday – so a little long in the tooth.

Time to redesign the pylon?

The Department for Energy and Climate Change, the National Grid and the Royal Institute of British Architects recently opened a competition to design a successor and over 250 designs were submitted.

I must say I am quite impressed with the designs, some are a significant departure from the existing design – some merely adapted it – but the very premise is thought provoking.

With the emphasis in future likely to move towards renewable energy, pylons are going to become more of a feature of the British landscape rather than less. To get electricity generated from wind farms and tidal generators we’ll need more and more of them. The days of power stations in the centre of London, like the long defunct one at Battersea, are long gone.

Don’t all pylon at once…

According to the National Grid it costs £1.6m per kilometre to set up pylon-transmitted electricity. This may sound a lot, but it’s small fry compared with around £20m per kilometre for buried cables. If we want to keep energy price increases to a minimum, it seems as though pylons are the only realistic way forward.

Having said that, some of the elaborate and beautiful designs submitted to the competition may not have been thought up with cost at the forefront of considerations.

Whether you think it’s beautiful or not, you could hardly argue that the current design isn’t functional – and at a relatively low cost too. Designs which follow the contours of the land and are built from composite materials might look elegant, but would we want them if they added another 10% or more to our energy bills?

In an ideal world we’d always have what’s most beautiful rather than what’s most cost effective. But this isn’t an ideal world so I keep coming back to the old adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Yes we need new pylons to keep the lights on, but what’s wrong with the ones we’ve got?

Do you think we should redesign the pylon?

Only if it doesn't affect the cost of our bills (45%, 112 Votes)

No, we're used to them as they are (29%, 72 Votes)

Yes, the current ones are ugly (26%, 64 Votes)

Total Voters: 248

Loading ... Loading ...

Wouldn’t like to work on most of them in inclement weather.

Safety should be king on this one – and the current (pardon the pun) design appears to have been proven pretty safe over 8 decades.
If a safer design is available then by all means go for it.
Design for the sake of it or design to try to be “fashionable” has no place in such a situation. To quote a famous titled lady [things go wrong when]”you value form over function”. Functionality & safety are the only two considerations that should be on the table surely?

The present safe design is mainly due to the design of the insulators to withstand various severe weather conditions. The number of insulators often indicate the actual voltage of transmission.

The open girder structure make the pylon easier to build on site with transportation of the individual girders easy to manage on our narrow UK roads. Though I suppose they could be transported by huge helicopters.(look at the human figure in some of the photos as indicator of scale)

Frankly cost is certainly a really major factor in the design – open network steel frames are also cheap to construct.

Leave them as they are. Any changes will draw attention to the fact that they are spoiling our view. We also don’t need anything that will increase electricity bills.

Greystoker says:
29 September 2011

Overhead lines represent the cheapest method of getting electrical energy from the generating units to the load centres substations for distribution through the medium of stepped down voltages.The higher the transmission voltage,currently at 400kv, the transmission losses are reduced for a given load being carried.Installing cables underground is very expensive as the National Grid have indicatedand hight capacity current carrying cables require special cooling systems to maintain the cables within their specified temperature.An overhead line might require a complete change every thirty years or so but the cost of renewing underground cables would be prohibitive and the time taken would be extensive and costly.Underground cable faults would lead to more disruption that with overhead lines.With overhead lines,there is also an added advantage in that the current loading can be increased at periods when the ambient temperature is low,ie in winter periods,thus giving the transmission added stability

There is no need to change the existing design of pylons.The main consideration is for a pylon to be able to support multi circuits at the highest transmission voltage possible and so minimise the cost of the individual transmission circuit.

Having doodled the various designs,I cannot see any new design replacing the existing designs which do vary internationally but nevertheless enbody the common principles.All the engineering has been done before from the development of the early grid system to the present 400kv system commissioned over 40 years ago.

As regards pylons there is no real requirement to change the design which have stood the test of time in giving Britain a reliable electricity transmission system.

Paul Hipwell says:
30 September 2011

If electricity cables are costed over their lifetime its actually cheaper to bury the cables than put them on pylons. DECC asked a major international consultancy KEMA to evaluate the cost of putting cables underground they failed to report as they could not get the information needed now new consultants have been appointed, before deciding whether to use pylons or bury the cables we should wait for independent figures on the true cost.
. National Grid in their under grounding consultation report say the cost is £1 on customers electricity bills to underground 50km of cables. In the next five years National Grid plan to install 345 km of cables so that is only £7 on electricity bills surely a small price to pay to bury the cables as we do with water and gas mains.

richard McH says:
30 September 2011

France has some really elegant pylons, unlike the meccano monstrosities we have in GB. Can’t we do the same or better?

I think the standard British design of pylon is quite attractive given the demands placed on them – to hold safely aloft the extremely heavy cable and insulators, withstand the forces acting on them from the swaying cables, endure extreme weather conditions, function with minimal attention in remote locations, cope with undulating ground, deter access by people and animals, and not spoil the view too much. France does have some attractive pylons but it also has some extremely ugly ones and many European contries seem to have less concern over appearance and landscape than we do. Showing the short-listedmodels with silver paintwork and computer adjusted design to present a filligree apearance of the wires is somewhat deceptive. I am not sure that some of the columndesigns could carry such long spans as the existing types so more pylons would be needed for a given distance. If the present ones were painted silver instead of grey they might look more pleasant, especially in sunlight. Even if undergrounding the cables was only marginally more expensive than stringing them from pylons I would still favour overhead power lines as more practical since they can follow an “as the crow flies” route. The obvious option of laying ducts alongside all new motorways was passed over when the opportunity arose and it is probably too late now; dissipating the heat generated by high-tension current transmission would have been a major factor counting against it.

I find the figure of £20m per kilometre of buried cable hard to believe. Years ago I was told Hong Kong had lots of power cables in trenches because of the high-rise buildings, and that these ran much hotter than UK underground cables because of the high ambient temperatures, but Hong Kong doesn’t seem to be short of electricity (and looks better for tourists, than much of Scotland will if NG/Scottish Power complete their proposed long high-pylon run from Inverness to Denny). This high cost per kilometre may be for very specialised completely enclosed tunnels in UK cities, but what about using open or loosely-covered trenches instead, in the countryside? The estimated cost sounds a bit like the very high costs quoted for every new mile of railway track by private companies in the UK, compared to the costs paid in Europe by countries that genuinely value their public transport.

Pam East Mids says:
2 October 2011

We live in an area where our countryside is littered with pylons and they are a real eyesore – wind turbines are quite beautiful by comparison!
We would gladly pay more for energy if this meant redesigned or preferably fewer pylons. Currently we seem to pay more simply to give energy companies bigger profits. Action to reduce these profits could yield money towards the elimination of pylons

You raise a good point, Pam, and indeed if the massive (not to say obscene) profits made by teh energy companies was to be used to improve the appearance of pylons and other parts of the system, I would not object at all.

Better still the profits should be used to subsidise power for the elderly and infirm, especially those who must use power for health reasons.

Best of all, the profits should be reduced by lowering the cost of gas and electricity for all customers.

Sadly I doubt very much that any of the three possibilities here will ever happen, but it is a very good point.

brian says:
2 October 2011

I can’t imagine many people would ‘gladly pay more for energy’ if the pylons were redesigned.
Its too late now but although they were(are!) inefficient, the utilities should never have been privatized.
There must have been a better way.

Frances says:
2 October 2011

I would like to see every roof made of very efficient solar tiles.
Then each household would be self sufficient.
And the National Grid might be a thing of the past.

Technological daydreaming right now.
But better to work towards removing junk from the countryside,
than wasting time and money redesigning it.

I am very surprised by the voting results to date:

Yes – 28%
No – 28%
Only if it costs no more – 44%

Is this because most people live in urban areas where most people do not endure the blight of ugly pythons?

I am a townie, nearly always have been and I am now, but I am not that selfish. Fortunately townies benefit from urban regulation where most cables are required to be underground. Townies should remind themselves of what it is like in the places they go on holiday where all too often roads are littered with poles and wires.

Maybe country people would object to the placement of powers stations in the countryside. Most electricity users are in cities. Shouldn’t power stations be located in cities? That would substantially reduce distribution costs and the number of pylons that blight the countryside.

Dave in Peterborough says:
3 October 2011

The demand for cheap sustainable energy supplies with a low carbon cost would appear to make the Pylon Option inveitable. They may not be attractive to look at, but how else are we going to mitigate the effects of climate change. Wind turbines are better looking but the same argument applies to them. However, I can quite understand that people in rural areas feel our landscape is being blighted. In order to minimise the need for land-based turbines and more pylons, all options have to be considered. For example, we need better insulation in buildings, more solar panels on roofs, more energy efficient vehicles, cheaper and more public transport.

With the designs depicted in the preamble above one can confidently say that only an idiot would wish to implement any one of them. In that case we can be sure that the Minister and DECC will be in favour of the most pretty and least suitable design.

As Josh is currently on holiday I thought you might be interested to see that the winner has been announced by DECC: http://www.decc.gov.uk/en/content/cms/news/pn11_82/pn11_82.aspx

The design is definitely better, and looks like it might be cheaper to make

To- Patric Steen, Please consider the following before making any more comments on this subject.
The idealistic setting shown by the artists impresion of a line crossing a meadow on a sunny day may look pretty, but the funcion of an overhead tower is to carry the conductors over all types of terrain in all types of weather,snow, ice ,gales and hurricanes in any combination without failing. In order to do this the cross arm would need to look more like the arms of the Angel of the North than the slimline arms shown. The conductor suspension depicted would also allow to much swinging and swaying of the conductors which in turn would increase the dynamic forces imposed on the structure not to mention the increased likelyhood of the conductors short circuiting to each other and to the vertical pole. History shows that single pole towers are more likely to fail than lattice towers due to adverse weather. The comment by a panel member that the winning design should result in smaller towers shows how little they know of the subject, the size of a tower is basically dictated by the operating voltage and the need to maintain electrical and safety clearances under all conditions.An overhead line pole of the winning type may be suitable for low voltage 400/230v lines at increased cost but not for 400kV and 132kV lines. No thought appears to have been given to the erection and maintainance of the lines.
In conclusion I consider that of the judging panel up to seven of the members were, in this context, stylists with no knowledge of designing overhead line towers,I would go so far as to say that some of them I would not trust to provide me with a garden washing line.

Mordenman says:
24 October 2011

b.martin is quite right. The reference to them as towers is revealing and suggests some direct experience ? When I looked casually at the designs produced I don’t remember any tension towers on display. Tension towers are the broader based ones with horizontal insulator strings used where the line changes direction. Those I saw were suspension towers which have vertical insulator strings, are all in line and act like clothes props supporting the conductors. They are slimmer and maybe easier to make look elegant. These structures may have been designed originally years ago, but they have been subject to very extensive revision and refinement over the years. They are immensly strong and adaptable, use many common components and can be erected and taken down quickly. When did the one ever fail, I wonder ?
Undergrounding is another matter. Bulk transmission is only practical by underground cable if it is converted to DC and hopefully the increase in such installations will reduce the cost of the terminal conversion plant, when the cables will be practical, but inevitably more vulnerable to external damage. I seem to recall that 400Kv cables cannot be used beyond about ten miles because of the capacitance effect, which with DC is only a problem when switching in and out.
Lower voltage transmission, I guess usually called distribution, is another matter with its own complications all outside my limited experience. I personally find the pole lines which get to where I live, as ugly as sin !

Mynci says:
25 October 2011

In north Wales we may be about to receive a new nuclear power station (albeit not immediately) in the form of Wylfa B, which will probably be around the 3 GW output capacity replacing the 0.9 GW existing Wylfa Magnox reactor. The Pylons coming out from this already blight some areas so that any improvement in pylon design is welcomed as much of the output from Wylfa B may head out east along the north Wales coast to the big populations in NW England. OK so let us see what the new designs look like on the ground, but let us also consider that if generation was closer to point of use and demand then fewer and / or smaller pylons would be necessary.

Hannah says:
23 March 2016

I would like to use some of these figures for a paper and I was wondering what your sources were for the cost of pylons and underground cables per km.

Hello Hannah, this came from the National Grid. Hopefully that helps you track it down.

[Edited for typo. Thanks DeeKay :)]

Spelling Patrick. . . . ??? I dont normally correct anyone but this is a bad looking one