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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.

Readers' comments (9)

  • Presumably nuclear strike tolerance will be a design objective. £10,000 on pylon design and billions on more nukes. The original open lattice design is good for withstanding blast as the Luftwaffe demonstrated with the Chain Home towers.

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  • Build them with a wind turbine built in.

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  • I like that idea Clive - brilliant. However the competition is just another blatant IP harvesting excersise - These 'competitions' are more damaging to the profession than free pitching IMO.

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  • If the idea is to make the pylons less visually offensive, how about painting them green so they are not so noticable from a distance? The same would go for the wind turbines (perhaps blue for the off-shore ones).

    I suppose, however, that we would then have problems with people flying into them...

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  • Where exactly do we find the application forms etc for this competition?

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  • Hello Robert, you'll find what you need at this address:

  • I agree with Clive, I've been on this idea for a while now: considering the many variants of Darrieus turbines I'm hopeful one of them would suit the turbulance caused by the framework. It's the framework that makes the idea look attractive to support the turbine. There must be 10's of thousands of suitably-sited pylons, many in remote windy places, covering the whole country. Transferring energy to the grid might not be as easy as it seems.

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  • USA pylons are made of tapered steel cylinders craned into place and bolted together. Less impact on ground use, and less visually intrusive. Much cheaper and quicker to assemble on site. Wind turbines on pylons may be a problem as most transmission lines run at very high voltages, not those generated by turbines, so transformer step-ups and other equipment would be needed on each pylon, possibly making such devices uneconomic.

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  • My design would be along the lines of "monopod and guy ropes", which would give flexibility of where on the ground the attachment points were. The structure would then be predominantly concerned with not buckling. For terminations or changes of direction the guy ropes would be more on one side than the other.
    And I'd retain the option to place phone masts on top, with line of sight relaying of signal along the grid to other places.

    Plus, precise GPS devices so the position of the top of each pylon could be known in real time to ascertain wind loading and cable/guy rope stretching.

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  • Re windmills inside pylons: the thought of stepping up to 100's of kV to tap into the line fills me with dread. So, why not a separate cable just for joining the turbines, then at a switching station, feed into the grid. It all sounds expensive, but with large scale production, many costs would drop considerably. DC might be the way to ease current sharing on the daisey chain.

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