Competition invites engineers to design future pylons

Engineers have been called on to redesign Britain’s electricity pylons ready for a doubling of energy infrastructure investment over the next decade.

The government has launched an open competition to come up with a more attractive pylon that matches the engineering success of the existing 80-year-old design.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) hopes that an improved design for pylons would reduce their impact on the landscape and make them more acceptable to the public.

Burying transmission cables underground is up to 10 times more expensive than running them overhead

‘I’m very passionate about trying to make sure that [because] we’re doing so much in terms of energy infrastructure, what we do should be the best possible design and as attractive as we can conceivably make it,’ energy secretary Chris Huhne told The Engineer.

Around £200bn-worth of energy investment is expected to take place in the UK over the next 10 years as more renewable power sources in remote and coastal locations are connected to the grid.

The original pylon was designed in 1927 by architect Sir Reginald Blomfield, and is still considered remarkably fit for purpose in terms of the strength, stability, adaptability and ease of maintenance provided by its lattice structure.

But the development of new technologies and materials such as carbon fibre had created an opportunity to design a more visually attractive pylon, said Nick Winser, executive director of National Grid, which will consider using the winning design.

‘We are really enthusiastic to get something we can use out of this competition so we’ll be delighted to look at all sorts of novel designs,’ he added.

‘As you look around the world, there are some quite interesting and artistic designs that have actually got into use.’

Opposition to new pylons is still common despite their long history as part of the British landscape, but the alternative of burying transmission cables underground is up to 10 times more expensive than running them overhead.

Winser said National Grid would be willing to consider building the winning design even if it were slightly more expensive to build than existing pylons and that entrants had quite a big envelope to play with.

‘It would be great if it turned out to be less expensive, but even if it was a bit more expensive but was more attractive to people, that might well make quite a good proposition if that made people more accepting of overhead lines across the landscape.’

Designers could have a huge challenge creating a concept that is more visually popular as well as equal in engineering to the old design, which was inspired by ancient Egyptian architecture.

A previously proposed solid pole design was rejected in a consultation with members of the public who preferred the existing lattice style, National Grid’s director of asset management Mike Calviou told The Engineer.

The DECC and National Grid are running the competition in partnership with the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Shortlisted entries will have the opportunity to work with National Grid to develop their final designs, which will be displayed at the V&A Museum in London in September.

A judging panel, including Huhne, Winser and several architects, engineers and design experts, will award £10,000 to the team behind the winning design.