Pylons as Art
Published In: EnergyBiz Magazine January/February 2012
TO SURVIVE, modern man requires electricity. Electricity to work, to cook and to play.
It is a paradox that we cannot imagine living without electricity, while we at the same time do not accept the power pylon as a part of our cultural landscape.
They dominate the landscape with visual noise.
Power pylons perform a vital function. Nevertheless, most people regard them as a threat. They are perceived as messengers of electricity, high voltage and danger. To some, they even symbolize the growing pollution from modern civilization. All of these perceptions have, over time, become synonymous with the power pylon.
Should we not try to create overhead transmission lines that dignify the power pylon and restore it as a worthy part of the landscape? We could let the appearance of the lines radiate the hope and possibilities we see in sustainable power production.
Transmission grids across the world all face great challenges as we reorganize energy production to increase the use of renewable sources. Almost all kinds of sustainable energy exploit the forces of nature. The wind turbine only turns when the wind blows, the photovoltaic cells rely on unobstructed solar rays, and the hydroelectric power plants run at full speed when the snow melts and water runs down the mountains.
We cannot avoid expanding the power grid if we want the capacity to move the energy to where it is needed, when it is needed, thus creating a reliable supply for everyone. It is this change in our electricity production and transmission grids that present a unique opportunity - the opportunity to make a difference in the landscape and create new pylons with a strong design profile, making power pylons an acceptable part of our present as well as our future.
My Danish studio, Bystrup Architects and Engineers, is designing and developing such new power pylons.
My company's work in the field of overhead transmission lines began in 2001 when my studio won the competition for a new power pylon in Denmark. The pylon was named the Design Pylon because the aesthetic appearance was the main point of focus. As a result of the competition, 80 Design Pylons were erected between the towns of Bramslev and Haverslev in Jutland. Working with technical installation from an aesthetic point of view did not turn out to be easy. Several details would have been different if, in 2001, I had the experience and knowledge I have today.
You could call the Design Pylon an important first step in the evolution toward the power pylons of the future. Since the erection of the first pylons, my studio has specialized in developing new high-voltage power pylons.
My company's office displays a nearly overwhelming number of designs built as 1:50 scale models. They are everywhere, and when you look in the archives of power pylons from the past 10 years, you enter a world of tower designs. Some have not been developed beyond initial sketches, while others are ready for production after they have been thoroughly refined and detailed technically as well as aesthetically. Essentially, they all answer the same questions. "What do we want from the power pylon? Is it a technical necessity, an object of design or a piece of land art?"
The answer lies somewhere in between. One of the challenges is to optimize the design according to the demands. An object as technically demanding as a power pylon needs to be more than pleasant to the eye, not only because faulty high-voltage design can have catastrophic results, but also because a wide range of technical demands must be met. For example, technical demands vary according to voltage, and as a result, design approaches can change. A power pylon designed for 400 kilovolts does not necessarily work at other voltages.
It is also important to take the configuration of the conductors into consideration when designing power pylons. Even though this step is often overlooked, the conductors have a significant visual presence with overhead transmission lines that stretch across the landscape. And the configuration of the conductors is as important as the design of the actual pylons.
The importance of conductor layout was examined in the Eagle Pylon project, a 2-by-400-kilovolt pylon developed for Energinet.dk. Six hundred Eagle Pylons will be erected between the towns of Kasso and Tjele in Denmark. The relationship between the pylon design and the conductor layout was examined as the pylon was developed as a one-, two- and three-level design. All three variations were thoroughly examined before a final decision was made to erect the two-level design because it was regarded as optimal in its relationship with the landscape.
Another important aspect of power pylon design is the choice of materials. Currently, industrial production offers far more options than was possible with traditional lattice towers. This advancement has made the use of far more materials possible, including materials that can be more effective in terms of erection speed and total cost.
The choice of materials can have a significant influence on the visual appearance of the new pylons. That is one reason why the studio has been working with mirror-polished stainless steel that reflects the surroundings and that can create the illusion of an almost invisible pylon.
An example of a mirror-polished design is the Stealth Pylon. The Stealth Pylon design is part of the work that led to Eagle Pylon, and it was developed in parallel with the effort that produced the pylon that will be erected between the towns of Kasso and Tjele as an alternative that might be used with the entire length of the transmission line.
The Mirror Wall won first prize in the competition to design a landscape/art tower at Heia in Norway, which also uses the reflection of the landscape on mirror-polished stainless steel. This pylon is a piece of land art, and it will be built as a one-of-a-kind pylon on a new transmission line in Norway.
The studio examined another material, fiber composite, because its insulating properties give rise to radical new possibilities in power pylon design. A fiber composite power pylon can be designed without traditional insulator chains because the pylon itself acts as one big insulator. The power pylon can be made visually clean and simple, thus minimizing its visual effect on the landscape.
Using the material correctly makes it possible to compress the power pylon and reduce its overall height, which is an important factor when looking at the appearance of the entire transmission line in the landscape. The lower pylons easily hide between forests and hills. The use of fiber composites as structural members in power pylons is new, but the technique is well known in the production of composite insulators.
Now is the time to create a contemporary pylon for modern life and adapt it to its surroundings. Let us create power pylons that remind us of the renewable energy that flows through the grid.
We owe it to the power pylon, the landscape and, not least, to ourselves.