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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

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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.