The Power of Beauty

27 June 2011 (Last Updated June 27th, 2011 18:30)

Energy projects are not renowned for their beautiful looks, but we could soon see them in a whole new light. Sarah Blackman discovers how governments, designers and engineers are transforming the appearance of masts, turbines and solar systems.

The Power of Beauty

Industrial steel masts, overbearing turbines and unsightly power plants have long been a cause of controversy among communities throughout the world, much to the frustration of utility providers. But, for the first time, energy companies and architects are coming together to paint a better picture of power generation.

Once an industry that focused solely on practicality, the power sector is now being influenced by design professionals to think about the visual appearance of their projects, paving the way for artistic installations and aesthetic infrastructure.

Suburban dwellers will be pleased by this new way of thinking, as more renewable energy projects come online in remote and coastal areas, but power companies may not have much scope for ingenuity if consumers are forced to foot the bill.

Transforming transmission towers

Transmission towers, though hugely essential to the transportation of electricity, are often seen as an eyesore among the world's landscapes. In the UK, there are more than 88,000 of the steel lattice structures spread across thousands of kilometres of the most exposed parts of the country, and their design hasn't altered since their invention in 1927. This year, however, the government has called on architects, designers and engineers to give the power pylon a makeover.

The news comes as the country plans to halve carbon emissions by 2025, which means that much more infrastructure will be needed to transmit electricity from renewable energy generation located in remote areas to homes and businesses.

"The power sector is being influenced by design professionals to think about the visual appearance of their projects."

In May 2011, UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne said that, "Done right, energy infrastructure can enhance the landscape. Our challenge is to make sure that this energy revolution is more sustainable and more beautiful than previous revolutions."

National Grid executive director Nick Winser added: "The pylon is a fantastic construction. But, in recent years, we have seen the development of new technologies and materials which means there is now the opportunity to design an entirely novel pylon."

The UK isn't the only country to rethink its transmission tower design. Jyväskylä in Finland has already installed yellow, looped Y-shaped masts that light up at night.

In Denmark, there are plans to install 550 revamped pylons in Jutland by 2014, creating the main highway of power for the country.

Erik Bystrup of Bystrup Architecture and Engineering is the brains behind the project. He created modern masts which are designed to look like abstract eagle's wings, unlike the existing masts, which Bystrup describes as old men.

"The new designs send a positive message that they are carrying power to you, unlike the existing ones, which have hanging shoulders," he says. "They send out the impression that it is a tough job to carry the power to you, and they look like old, grumpy men."

The mast comes in more than one version and can be adapted according to consumer needs. But Bystrup admits he had to let go of his preferred design for Jutland due to public pressure.

"If we made the decision we would have opted for our stainless steel-clad design made with stealth technology which mirrors the environment, making the mast almost invisible," he adds.

The chosen mast for Jutland will be made with a galvanised steel vertical pole and reflective stainless steel wings, which will carry 2x400KV of power through the air.

An alternative solution for transporting power is to bury cables underground, but this method would cost six to nine times more than it would to install a pylon over ground, a cost which would be paid for by consumers through electricity bills.

"If you ask people if they would be willing pay three to four times more for their electricity, I think they would choose to have pylons," Bystrup explains.

Electric art

Other proposed projects set to explore the relationship between energy infrastructure and the environment are not only being sketched out to transport energy, but to generate power for thousands of homes.

"Siemens worked with multimedia artist Michael Pendry to illuminate a wind turbine with 9,000 LEDs."

The Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI), an organisation that aims to integrate art with renewable energy, launched a design competition in the United Arab Emirates in 2010.

Founders Elizabeth Monoian, a graphic-design instructor at Dubai University, and Robert Ferry, an architect who has consulted on projects such as Masdar City, made an international call for architects, scientists and engineers – both amateur and professional – to come up with aesthetic and pragmatic solutions for energy.

The winning design, the Lunar Cubit project, could serve as solar-powered energy structures in the form of Egyptian-style pyramids.

Made of glass and amorphous silicon, the nine pyramids, which have the potential to generate 3,500MW hours per year, would also act as a sundial and lunar calendar by casting the sun's shadow to mark each hour, and illuminating the phases of the moon.

A 14-member jury voted for the project due to its practical and visual appeal, explains Ferry,

"It wouldn't cost much more - in terms of cost per MW capacity – than a utilitarian installation would," he says. "It would also be very easy to construct. At the same time, it accomplished the goal of being an interesting work of art and it really appealed to the ideas that are held closely in the region."

But LAGI isn't limiting the Lunar Cubit design to the UAE, insists Ferry. "We have to separate the award from the potential for construction because we want to make sure that when a city makes a decision to pursue construction, they are reaching their own criteria," he says. "There are several successful designs that came out of the competition and we are building a portfolio for cities to invest in these works of arts."

LAGI's next venture will be launched in New York, US, where the organisation is currently drafting the 2012 competition design brief. Entries will be asked to come up with an art installation that could generate power for communities surrounding the Freshkills Park in Staten Island, which is being transformed from a former landfill site by New York City Parks and Recreation.

In recent years, several power projects have been challenged with 'not-in-my-backyard' lawsuits by opposing residents, but Ferry insists this will not be an issue with successful LAGI entries.

"By creating these of works of art, the intention is to meet the stake holders and communities more than half way," he says. "However, there is no guarantee that the winning project will be developed because it depends on whether the community will buy into it or not. This is just the first step."

Siemens superstar

"There are plans to install 550 revamped pylons in Jutland by 2014."

LAGI's main objective is to allow the development of educational and inspirational installations to encourage more interest in renewable energy, much like Siemens aimed to do with the birth of its 'Superstar' last year.

Siemens worked with multimedia artist Michael Pendry to illuminate a wind turbine in Munich, Germany with 9,000 LEDs. The 'star' was lit up over Christmas to send positive messages about sustainable energy solutions.

"We sat together and thought about something really new to show just before the climate summit in Copenhagen, to create a symbol of hope," said Siemens spokesperson Dr Marc Langendorf.

It's true, artistic structures are inspiring, but the question is how far should energy companies go when it comes to creating beautiful power projects in these tough economic times? Ferry believes its all about balance.

"There probably will always need to be straight, utilitarian arrays of solar panels or the most efficient horizontal wind turbine technology," he says. "But we want to also create aesthetic projects in landscapes that artists can be inspired by."