Pylon of the Month - April 2023


As winter starts to recede in the rearview mirror and the skiing season draws to a close, April's Pylon of the Month comes from St. Anton in Austria. The last time an Austrian pylon featured on the blog was back in May 2011. A colleague sent this picture my way in the middle of her holiday with the good news that she had so far managed to avoid skiing into it. The padding around the bottom would suggest that isn't the case for everyone! Anyway, a quick check of the invaluable Open Infrastructure Map reveals that the valley in which St. Anton sits has quite a few pylon lines running along it, so it is hard to be sure exactly which line this particular pylon is on.  It's good to see that sustainability is important to the area with the St. Anton Am Arlberg website proclaiming that:

An important and unique project in the world of ski resorts is the independent power supply. In 2005, the Kartell power plant was expanded and the Kartell lake put into operation. This reservoir, which is also a tourist attraction, holds around eight million cubic meters of water and supplies around 33 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year. The entire storage volume of the Kartellsee is used again by the existing Rosanna power plant. This means that St. Anton am Arlberg has been self-sufficient in electricity supply since 2006.

I can't find the specific power plants mentioned above on the Wikipedia List of Power Stations in Austria page but that could well be because of naming issues in English and German. It is clear, however, that pumped hydropower is big in that part of Austria as you would expect from the terrain. The nearby Kaunertal Power Plant is an example and it generates around 661 Gigawatt hours of electrical energy in a typical year. You can even visit it, so if you find yourself in the area in winter and fancy a day away from the slopes, then this looks like a must-see for all fans of winter sports and electrical infrastructure. 

That's all for now, but as always, you can head to Pylon of the Month on Twitter if you want pylons to be a more regular part of your life.


Pylon of the Month - March 2023


October's pylon comes via Twitter courtesy of @Cloudwatcher 32 who goes by the Twitter name Liminal Spaces1. It caught my eye for a number of reasons, the first of which is that there has always been a special place on Pylon of the Month for pylons photographed out of the window of a moving vehicle. One of the earliest pylons on the blog back in July 2009 was from a photo taken on the M6 and there have been many others since. This one was self-evidently taken out of a train window and I like the juxtaposition of the electricity transmission network and a lone pylon with the railway electricity transmission system in the foreground. I also like the interior lights reflected in the window and which act as a reminder that the image was taken whilst on a journey.  'Liminal' in the OED has one definition that is particularly relevant here given the source of the image:

Characterized by being on a boundary or threshold, esp. by being transitional or intermediate between two states, situations, etc.

Railway journeys offer lots of scope for gazing out of the window and spotting pylons, although mobile phones and onboard wifi mean that fewer people take the opportunity to do so. Happily, @Cloudwatcher32 did and this photo was taken whilst heading down the East Coast main line north of Peterborough. The ever trusty Open Infrastructure map tells me that the pylon is on the 400 kV Cottam Power Station to Wymondley Substation line but a quick check shows that Cottam power station was decommissioned in 2019. Further investigation on the map seems to indicate that the West Burton power stations could be using the line - perhaps someone in the know could confirm this? Anyway, if it is West Burton, there are two power stations there, one combined cycle gas turbine (West Burton B) and one coal-fired (West Burton A). West Burton A is one of only three coal-fired power stations left in the UK and was due to close in September 2022. Its life was extended by six months because of the volatile energy market associated with the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and it is now due to close at the end of March 2023. Featuring on the blog in the month of its demise is therefore a rather timely tribute to its loyal service since 1966 and a nice way to bring this month's post to an end.

1. If you're unclear about the difference between a Twitter handle and a Twitter name this link should clear things up

Pylon of the Month - February 2023


The fact that this is February's Pylon of the Month rather than January's is because of a mixture of procrastination and busyness. That and the fact that having @pylonofthemonth Twitter provided a daily pylon fix so that the withdrawal symptoms weren't quite powerful enough to galvanise me into action. This pylon comes courtesy of a colleague at work and was taken a day or so after a lovely conversation where he learnt about my interest in electricity transmission infrastructure. It was a cold snap in the UK and with another one upon us as I write this, it seemed like a good idea to juxtapose pylons and frost. There is clearly something aesthetically pleasing about the idea because both Shutterstock (Hoar Frost Pylons) and Alamy (Electricity pylons covered in snow) have plenty of images to choose from! These particular pylons are near Sandford Lock south of Oxford which is notable for having the deepest fall of all the locks on the Thames at 2.69 metres. It's also close to the infamous Sandford Lasher, the scene of a number of tragic drownings. According to this article from Dark Oxford, one of them (Michael Llewelyn Davies in 1921), was the inspiration for Peter Pan. You could visit the pylon (as my colleague did) en route to the newly opened and fantastic Proof Social Bakehouse on a nearby industrial estate. 

One of the great things about writing this blog is the serendipitous discoveries I make whilst researching the articles. This month, I stumbled across a short story by L P Hartley, best known his 1953 novel The Go-Between which has the famous opening line - "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there". His much less well known short story, "The Pylon" is a rather strange tale.  A quote from near the beginning:

 The pylon, then, had served him as a symbol of angelic strength. But in other moods it stood for something different, this grey-white skeleton. In meaner moods, rebellious moods, destructive moods, he had but to look at it to realize how remote it was from everything that grew, that took its nourishment from the earth and was conditioned by this common limitation. It was self-sufficient, it owed nothing to anyone. The pylon stood four-square upon the ground, but did not draw its sustenance from the ground. It was apart from Nature; the wind might blow on it, the rain might beat on it, the snow might fall on it, frost might bite it, drought might try to parch it, but it was immune, proof against the elements: even lightning could not touch it, for was it not itself in league with lightning?

You can read the full story in this online poetry magazine or by getting your hands on a copy of the Collected Macabre Stories published in 2001. There are undoubtedly hidden psychological depths to the story that I might discuss with a literary expert at some point, but I'll leave you this month with another short quote. I shall bear it in mind whenever I read a story about the removal of a pylon from the landscape.

But whereas their grievance against the pylon had been vocal for many years, their gratitude for its departure was comparatively short-lived. They would still say, ‘How marvellous without the pylon!’ but they didn’t really feel it, and after a month or two they didn’t even say it, taking their deliverance for granted, just as when an aching tooth is pulled out, one soon ceases to bless the painless cavity.


Pylon of the Month - December 2022


December's Pylon of the Month was chosen to bring a bit of colour to the depths of winter and also to bring a bit of culture to the blog. The picture above, La Route des Alpes, is by Tristram Hiller and was painted in 1937 when he was staying near Vence, a commune set in the hills of the Alpes Maritimes department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region in southeastern France, north of Nice and Antibes. Even the keenest followers of the blog might struggle to recall that Hiller also featured on PotM back in January 2014 with his 1933 pylon painting which is generally accepted as one of the earliest or possibly even the first artistic appearance of a pylon. Hillier studied at the Slade School of Art, London, in 1926, and then in Paris where he fell under the influence of surrealists such as Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst. According to the Tate's description of this painting, Hillier later wrote that when staying near Vence:

I started to paint landscape again, not in my earlier manner en plein air, but attempting to construct my pictures from rough drawings which I would elaborate in the studio, in the style of the Flemish and Italian masters whose work I had recently had so much opportunity of studying. This was the beginning of my ultimate phase in painting, and became the manner in which I have worked ever since.

For a bit more on the life of Hillier, this short 6 minute film is hard to beat, but if you're looking for a deep dive into his artistic influences and how he blurred the distinction between abstraction and surrealism then this Art UK article is where to go. For a wider cultural overview of pylons and the art and poetry of the 1920s then James Purdon's 'Landscapes of Power' is excellent.

Merry Christmas to pylon fans everywhere! Next month we'll get back to pylons in real life.


Pylon of the Month - November 2022


This month's stunning pylon photograph first caught my eye on Twitter where it was posted by @FinnHop. You can also find him on Instagram and via @PhotoBrighton. It's up there with the most stunning photos to have featured on the blog.

Screenshot 2022-11-19 133814

Autumn, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness seems to have arrived as I write this in the middle of November, so it's a perfect image for the time of year.  Although I've been to Brighton a few times, the South Downs is a National Park that I've never really visited so it's another entry on my ever growing 'Places to Visit' list.

A quick look at the Open Infrastructure Map tells me that the pylons are likely to be linked in some way to Shoreham Power Station a 420MWe combined cycle gas-fired power station in Southwick, West Sussex. I'm a Physics teacher so obviously, I'm familiar with MegaWatts (MW), but the 'e' afterward led me to an SI unit controversy that might be one of the most niche rabbit holes I've disappeared down since starting the blog. Below is an extract from the Wikipedia page on the SI unit of power, the Watt, in particular the sub-section on "Conventions in the electric power industry". This really is one for only the most ardent of electricity geeks.

In the electric power industry, megawatt electrical (MWe refers by convention to the electric power produced by a generator, while megawatt thermal or thermal megawatt (MWt or MWth) refers to thermal power produced by the plant. For example, the Embalse nuclear power plant in Argentina uses a fission reactor to generate 2109 MWt (i.e. heat), which creates steam to drive a turbine, which generates 648 MWe (i.e. electricity). Other SI prefixes are sometimes used, for example gigawatt electrical (GWe). The International Bureau of Weights and Measures, which maintains the SI-standard, states that further information about a quantity should not be attached to the unit symbol but instead to the quantity symbol (i.e., Pthermal = 270 W rather than P = 270 Wth) and so these units are non-SI.

It's raining outside as I finish this post, but I'm hoping for more cold misty days like the one in the photo above. On that note, I'll leave it there for this month. See you in December!




Pylon of the Month - October 2022


As mid-October came and went, I still hadn't decided on a pylon for the blog when fate intervened and these beauties crossed my path (literally - I was on a short walking holiday with a friend). They can be found close to the village of Coughton just south of Ross-on-Wye. If like me, you are walking the Wye Valley trail in a northerly direction, they are just before the sting in the tail of the Monmouth to Ross leg - a very steep path up to Chase Wood before the final descent. The pylons lower down the hill are on the 132 kV Hereford-Port Ham line and the sub-station at Port Ham would be well worth a visit if only such things were possible. It was finished in 2006 and rather than air insulated switchgear (AIS), it adopted an alternative approach:

based on ABB’s ELK-04 GIS (gas insulated switchgear), the compact design of which meant that the replacement switching station could be housed indoors in a new purpose-built building that occupies less than one fifth of the space used by the previous AIS switching station.

Switchgear is a rabbit hole that I just can't afford to go down - If I did I might not emerge for a few days, so I'll move on to the upslope pylons which are on the National Grid's Walham-Rassau 400 kV line. Regular readers will know that 400 kV is the highest voltage used in the UK and 200 kV and 400 kV lines make up what is known as the super grid - the motorways of electricity transmission in the UK. The Walham-Rassau line is interesting to me for a number of reasons. The first is that if you follow it East beyond Walham (near Gloucester) you reach Didcot power station which is close to where I live. The second is that just West of where I saw the line it goes underground for 2.5 km as it crosses the Wye Valley. Going underground is not a decision taken lightly by National Grid because it costs considerably more than installing overhead lines, but in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the cost is worthwhile. If that whets your appetite for (lots) more detail, then the Electricity Transmission Costing Study from the Institute for Engineering and Technology (IET) and Parsons Brinkerhoff is well worth adding to your reading list. A quick glance at the Executive Summary is revealing (it's from 2012 so costs will have changed but the ratio of costs for different options is presumably broadly similar):

  • Overhead line (OHL) is the cheapest transmission technology for any given route length or circuit capacity, with the lifetime cost estimates varying between £2.2m and £4.2m per kilometre; however, OHL losses are the most sensitive to circuit loading.
  • Underground cable (UGC), direct buried, is the next cheapest technology after overhead line, for any given route length or circuit capacity. It thus also represents the least expensive underground technology, with the lifetime cost estimates varying between £10.2m and £24.1m per kilometre.

Phewee! That started with a lovely walk in the Wye Valley and ended up deep in the heart of technical reports about transmission infrastructure. That's the roller coaster ride that is Pylon of the Month!



Pylon of the Month - September 2022


After taking the month of August off, the new school year starts with a holiday pylon. These beauties were snapped on the way to Preveza airport in Greece (by my daughter - I was driving) at the end of a wonderful two weeks on the island of Lefkada. This photo was one of many, but it caught my eye because it captures a tension pylon where the line is changing direction as well as a suspension pylon with the lines continuing straight. I also like the fact that the three conductors are side by side rather than stacked as is usually the case in the UK. I'm guessing that this is to reduce the height of the tower but it isn't something you see very often in the UK (if at all?) so it has a whiff the exotic about it! This type of pylon is (according to the French pylon Wikipedia page) a cat pylon (Le pylône Chat) and you can see why with the triangular features on top looking like ears. Whether that is a name recognised across international borders I have no idea - well travelled pylon experts please do get in touch and let me know.

The island of Lefkada is connected to the mainland via a 150 kV power line which continues (underwater) to the well known island of Cephalonia to the south. It therefore has the same electricity generation mix as Greece as a whole:

.......dominated by natural gas (36%) and coal (21.8%) while wind power served 15.2%, oil 9.6%, solar PV 8.3%, hydropower 8.3% and biomass 0.8% of the total generation.

The above quote is from the Islander project website, which is a project to accelerate the decarbonisation of islands' energy systems. The project started in Holland but there are now four follower islands - Orkney in Scotland, Cres in Croatia and Skopelos and Lefkada in Greece. There is still some way to go and Greece is identified as a green energy laggard in this Al Jazeera article from December 2021. The issue that seems to have prevented an earlier push for renewables is that Greece has considerable reserves of lignite and so many coal powered fire stations, but the mood is now shifting with a plan to phase out coal by 2028. Generating more energy using solar and wind seems to be a no-brainer for Greece and exporting solar energy could boost the Greek economy and help other European countries reach their renewable energy targets. That's pretty much the definition of a win-win situation.

That's all for now. See you next month for more pylon action!





Pylon of the Month - July 2022


July's Pylon of the Month comes from County Durham and whilst there are many more striking images of pylons on the blog, there is always a place for the quotidian picture taken on a whim - in this case, whilst stopping for petrol on the A167 a few miles south of the city of Durham. The pylon is on the 400 kV line that when viewed on open infrastructure map appears to originate from Blyth substation (via Stella West).

Screenshot 2022-07-09 123258

This is exciting news because Blyth is the substation next to the Cambois converter station which is where the North Sea Link from Norway makes landfall:

The North Sea Link is a 1,400 MW high-voltage direct current submarine power cable between Norway and the United Kingdom. At 720 km (450 mi) it is the longest subsea interconnector in the world. The cable became operational on 1 October 2021.

For more on interconnectors and the UK, this Financial Times article is worth reading. It notes that the cable has a capacity of 1.4 GW and that:

Interconnectors are a key part of the UK strategy for cutting emissions and boosting offshore wind because they allow the UK grid to share or import power depending on supply and demand.

Anyway, from the pylon to the personal. The reason for the visit to Durham was my daughter's graduation and it was lovely to celebrate her success although COVID had delayed the ceremony by a year. If you find yourself in the North East then as well as ticking off a few electricity infrastructure sites from your bucket list, Durham Cathedral is also spectacular and well worth some of your time. In fact, at the risk of causing offence to fans of the blog, if you have limited time I'd prioritise the cathedral. That's all for now. With the return of travel, next month's pylon will hopefully be a holiday pylon.




Pylon of the Month June 2022


In November 2011, Pylon of the Month featured the winning design of a contest organised by the Royal Institute of British Architects to design a new pylon. Over ten years later and that design is being rolled out in Somerset and the National Grid website informs me that:

The new pylons form part of National Grid’s Hinkley Connection project, a £900m investment to connect low carbon electricity from Hinkley Point C Nuclear power station. They will run between Bridgwater and Portbury, other than through the Mendip Hills AONB where the new connection goes underground. The project also includes the removal of 249 electricity pylons between Bridgwater and Avonmouth.

These T-pylons have featured in newspapers, on TV/Radio and on Twitter over the last few months and I did consider using an image from the internet as May's Pylon of the Month. For such a defining moment in pylon history, however, that just seemed wrong. How could I, as a leading light of the pylon blogging world not be a witness to history myself before going into print? Fortunately, a half-term trip to Cornwall a few weeks ago allowed my wife to take this picture as we drove down the M5 with me trying not to swerve all over the road as I excitedly pointed out of the car window. A crash was avoided and a pleasant week in Cornwall followed. 

As can be seen, the pylons have a single pole and T-shaped cross arms which hold the wires in a diamond ‘earring’ shape. They are also only 35 metres high, a third shorter than traditional lattice pylons. They were designed by Bystrup:

the only company in the world, specialized in developing new power pylons for the global market. 

I wasn't sure what I'd make of them in the flesh but I have to say that I was impressed. I'm not entirely convinced that they are less visually intrusive than the traditional lattice pylons, but that may just be the shock of the new and in a few years time, perhaps I'll be driving down the motorway without even noticing them.

You can find out more about the design of the new pylons in this fascinating (8-minute) video and after that, you might well find yourself inventing an excuse to drive down the M5 to see them IRL. If you do, take a picture and tag @pylonofthemonth on Twitter or Instagram where there are always plenty of pylons to admire.

Pylon of the Month May 2022


May's Pylon of the Month first caught my eye on Twitter courtesy of @simoncgallagher and you can see more of his fantastic photography on Instagram. The picture was taken at sunset and the beautiful sky in the background immediately made me think of 'the violet hour' as described by T S Eliot in section three of The Wasteland. The phrase crops up more than once, but is most obviously related to evening by:

At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
I'm not sure if it was T S Eliot who coined the phrase in the first instance, but in the unlikely event that any pylon fans also happen to be literary scholars specialising in TS Eliot and/or Modernism please do get in touch. Anyway, the violet hour has certainly got a bit of traction with a quick Google search revealing a contemporary art gallery, a Chicago cocktail bar, a play and a British alternative/folk rock band.
Anyway, back to the pylon which is an L6, a classic design introduced in the early 1960s and a common sight all across the UK. This one is on the Pelham 400 kV line just west of Bishop's Stortford and just north of the 715 MW CCGT Rye House power station. If you're looking for a reason to visit, it has the largest air-cooled condenser in Europe after which you can take your pick of the best pubs in Bishop's Stortford whilst you look back on a few hours well spent. That's all for now - come back next month for more or head to @pylonofthemonth on Twitter for more regular pylon action.