Aesthetic Energy Autobahns: Can Designer Power Masts Win Over the Public?

By Christina Schmidt

Europe is undergoing a revolution in energy production that requires massive new infrastructure to support the shift to renewables. But do new power lines always have to result in blight? Some utility companies are hoping that designer power masts can help overcome local opposition.

Photo Gallery: Designer Power Masts Photos
Bystrup Architects

Erik Bystrup gets enthusiastic when the talk turns to power transmission masts. Standing in front of one of his masts, the Danish architect uses words like "elegance" and "beauty" and talks about how pleased he is that transmission masts are finally no longer dotting the landscape like "giant sad men."

There is a simple reason behind Bystrup's passionate words: His masts are not ordinary steel structures but art. To improve the Danes' acceptance of the poles, which are visible at great distances, the architect designed modern masts that look like abstract crowns or eagles' wings.

Bystrup is proud that he can count himself among the pioneers of a new aesthetic of the power transmission mast. Some 500 of his winged masts will soon mark a 166-kilometer (103-mile) section of power lines in Denmark's Jutland region. The architect rhapsodizes over the steel poles, saying the way they reflect sunlight will make them "almost invisible."

Invisibility is a characteristic many citizens would like see applied to power lines. Because of the massive shift to renewable energies currently being planned, thousands of kilometers of new, high-voltage power lines will have to be installed throughout Europe in the coming years, a prospect that generates very little enthusiasm across the continent. The masts will be used to transport electricity from offshore windparks off the North and Baltic seas as well as saved energy from batteries in Norway in Northern Europe as well as power from giant solar energy facilities in North Africa to consumers across the continent. But the networks of steel cable, which are about 60 meters (197 feet) high, are a blight on the landscape and are surrounded by electromagnetic fields, triggering public campaigns against them in many European countries. In Germany, the public debate is beginning in earnest following plans by Chanceller Angela Merkel to back away from her government's initial move to extend the lifelines of nuclear plants and to now likely retreat from atomic energy entirely.

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.

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.

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.

'Our Projects Are Still in Their Infancy'

In other European countries, the conflict over power transmission masts as art is in full swing. In Germany, on the other hand, which likes to see itself as a pioneer of future-oriented energy technology, there are no masts shaped like asparagus, crowns or wings to be seen. "Our projects are still in their infancy," says Wilfried Fischer, manager of major projects with the eastern German grid operator 50Hertz. The traditional grid-shaped mast is so superior in terms of solidity and economic efficiency, says Fischer, that the only word he can think of to describe them is "optimal."

German bureaucracy, with its thousands of safety and construction rules, has also made it difficult to change the design of traditional masts. "Overhead power lines are in the public space. They are our responsibility, and we cannot experiment with untested materials," says Fischer.

The planned surge of investment would provide an opportunity to design power lines to be as unobtrusive as possible. Designer masts are a compromise but by no means an answer to the question of how much harm the human need for electricity is actually worth. The grid operators still have other ways of satisfying local residents' demands, such as by using the power grid of Deutsche Bahn, Germany's national railway, installing underground power lines and even integrating wind turbines into power masts to generate additional electricity.

The Danish architect Bystrup knows from firsthand experience how great the need for discussion is. During the course of the public debate, he was forced to redesign his eagle-wing mast several times. First it was safety concerns and residents' demands that the masts be placed farther away from homes, and then visual preferences, that made the masts slimmer, but also taller and more noticeable. The architect was left with little of his original vision to create an invisible mast.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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