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Can You Put Lipstick on This Pig?

This is an example of a typical power mast configuration in Germany today.

Overhead power transmission lines are in the spotlight today in a big way. Why? Germany plans to abandon nuclear energy and embark on a large-scale move to renewable energy. Wonderful—but not so fast meine Freunde.

The Germans need to build new “energy autobahns” to meet their goal. We’re not talking about someplace to road test the latest German-engineered EVs. There’s this pesky little issue of grid connection necessary to make this move to renewable energy happen. These “autobahns” are very large-scale networks of overhead power transmission lines.

Oops. Here come the NIMBYs—but this time there’s a twist.

So far, the biggest objection raised by the NIMBYs appears to be the visual impact of overhead power transmission lines. NIMBYs will now face a new weapon in that battle. It’s called “the power of beauty” by the German grid operators and their Danish design partners behind it.

It’s all about the aesthetics—they just might be onto something here.

Here’s one example of a clever new “designer power mast” the grid operators believe can be deployed to help them overcome that objection:

The “Mirror Wall” power mast reflects its nearby surroundings and becomes nearly invisible. The cables are hard to see here—but it’s not Tesla stuff.

Background: This is not a new problem.

There’s no inner beauty to be found in overhead power transmission lines.

You’ll find folks who consider the sleek design of modern wind turbines to be beautiful. Some even find their low-pitched whooshing soothing. Of course, others consider the opposite true—but at least there are two camps.

Find me one person on the planet—let alone Germany—who finds beauty in an array of overhead power transmission lines. I’d wager that any poll conducted on underground cabling versus overhead cabling would be 100% in favor of underground. Unfortunately, underground cabling is not always practical from a cost perspective or it is simply impossible to engineer at some locations. But, we need to connect to the grid and deliver power to where it’s needed. So, we’ve learned to live with ugly overhead cabling.

Opposition to overhead power lines is not new. Power transmission projects all over the planet have faced it. What are the usual objections? Visual impact, property value hits, wildlife endangerment, and perceived risk from electric and magnetic fields (EMF) typically top the list. Projects invariably suffer the consequences of delays, cost overruns, and outright cancellations once the arguments begin.

Sound familiar? The list of objections against power transmission line projects is strikingly similar to those used by opponents to renewable energy projects including wind, solar, and even hydro. Virtually the same set of objections are raised regardless of the project type. It’s the NIMBY playbook.

Will the “power of beauty” help the grid operators change the game? The jury’s still out but this is certainly a step in the right direction. Plus, there is solid proof that making the power masts more visually appealing works.

Every design here is a more attractive than what we suffer with today.

More on the Story

Christina Schmidt explored the subject further in Spiegel Online. Here’s an excerpt of her excellent piece along with more illustrations of prototypes:

Design against NIMBY Lawsuits

With a whole slew of not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) lawsuits planned against the construction of so-called new energy autobahns in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, grid operators in many places are now deploying a new weapon in the fight against this concentrated resistance: the power of beauty. In the Finnish city of Jyväskylä, transmission masts are no longer just unadorned metal poles. Instead, yellow, looped Y-shaped masts stretch into the sky. When they are illuminated at night, they convey the message of green electricity. In Iceland, dramatic designs could lead to masts in the future that take the shape of human statues. Because of the way they are designed, they can even be adjusted to suit their environment, so that, for example, they look like people climbing up a hill.

This design is intended to look like abstract crown or eagle’s wings.

The electric utilities can already report their first successes. Bystrup’s crown-shaped masts in northern Denmark are the result of a contest the Danish grid operator Energinet.dk announced about 10 years ago. To gain approval for a new transmission route, the company enticed local residents and their political representatives with the idea of using less conspicuous designer masts. “Politicians took up the idea and then told us it was a requirement,” says Energinet.dk manager Christian Jensen. It was a horse trade that apparently brought reconciliation into the political debate. Today, local residents fondly refer to the transmission masts as “magic wands,” an allusion to their shape.

This prototype may soon appear in Denmark’s Jutland region.

No Silver Bullet: Some still oppose and will only accept underground lines:

But it isn’t everywhere that citizens meekly succumb to the charm of the spruced up masts, which, at the end of the day, are still masts, as the Dutch grid operator Tennet experienced. Its proposal to replace the standard steel poles with double masts consisting of two asparagus-shaped poles encountered little approval. “We want underground lines instead of dangerous masts. A new exterior doesn’t change that,” says Harry van der Weij, one of the protesting citizens.

Norwegian Artistic Departure

This sculpture design approach called “The World’s Largest Reindeer” was awarded Second Place in a power mast design contest held in Norway.
The “Mirror Wall” pictured above in this post came in First Place.

Icelandic Artistic Departure   Added May 25, 2011

This design submitted to the Icelandic High-Voltage Electrical Pylon International Design Competition proposes giant human-shaped pylons. The figures can be posed. For example, they could look as if they’re climbing as a power line ascends a hill or stretch up to gain increased height over longer spans.

Filed under energyNIMBY