In 2008 I urged the not-yet-elected Obama team to build their promised national electricity grid using decent designs for high-voltage pylons. Low-voltage lines can be buried fairly cheaply, but this solution is prohibitively costly for the high-voltage long-distance grid backbones.
The latest country to have joined this bandwagon of virtue is the UK, which last week announced a competition for new pylon designs. Steven Chu please copy.
What’s going on here? (Photo gallery at the end, below the jump.) The National Grid, privatised but a tightly regulated monopoly utility, needs to build lots of new lines to carry wind power from the remote offshore and highland locations where you find it. But land use is one of the few areas where British local government has real powers of veto. Well-organised and experienced NIMBY protesters are adept at playing the system to obstruct large construction projects (see London airports, passim). So the Grid need serious political help to get their lines built. Chris Huhne, the Lib Dem energy minister, obviously thinks that the premium for good design is worth paying to dampen NIMBY opposition.
This is the democratic political process substituting in a rough-and-ready way for the infeasible Coase market in visual nuisance.
That can’t be all. The movement for better pylon design started SFIK in France, where NIMBY protests don’t get far against raison d’état. It must be a fortunate internalisation of aesthetic concerns by the engineer-technocrats trained in the Grandes Ecoles. The old, ugly designs come to be seen as kludgy, naff, old hat.
I don’t know how much extra you have to pay for changing eyesores into acceptable features of the landscape. Marc Mimram cited the unit cost of his very fancy Roseau design at €580k, but that’s for a pilot run of under a dozen pylons. Mass production and value engineering will presumably bring this down a lot. I reckon they are good value even at the higher price, a drop in the overall system costs.
Images speak louder than words, so here’s a gallery.
Roseau is still my favourite. What’s yours?
PS: I emailed my original post at the time to the UK Department of Energy, who forwarded it (they replied) to National Grid. You never know.