November's Pylon of the Month was sent in by a fellow pylon fan with the comment that:
You’re probably not aware that over the course of this year the National Grid has changed the line of pylons between the Offerton substation and West Boldon in Sunderland / South Tyneside. They are now in the process of removing the old 275Kv towers that still stand wireless.
While I keep an ear to the ground, this was the first I'd heard about this development in the North East of England. The email also mentioned that the new 450 kV towers might be related to the opening of a new electric vehicle battery factory. Google didn't turn up anything definitive about this, but Envision is working with Nissan on just such a factory that is due to open in 2025 according to this article on the Electrive website. There is something about pylons without wires that I find rather sad - pylons without a purpose - but I imagine that the old towers will soon be taken down. Perhaps they will be recycled and born again as part of one of the many new lines planned over the next decade.
About 8-10 new 450Kv towers have been installed and according to the sender of the picture,
One of the towers (not photographed - though I could do one if you like) is of an odd shape that seems to be where the new series joins the old series.
Of course, I took up the offer of a photograph and here it is. I'm hopeful that one of the many fans of the website expert knowledge about the National Grid will be able to shed some light on the details of how the old 275 kV and new 450 kV pylons were brought together.
Finally, October saw my first TV appearance on the BBC's Politics SouthEast programme. In that part of the country, the many proposed new pylons are causing a certain amount of controversy and my job was to try and persuade people that pylons are beautiful. I'm not sure whether I succeeded or not, but I enjoyed the chance to get my message out there!
October's Pylon of the Month was meant to make an appearance in September as an addition to the occasional series of 'What I did on holidays' pylons. It can still do that, but is also part of the rather more regular 'better late than never' series. The picture was taken on the outskirts of Ciutadella on the beautiful island of Menorca in late August. Having spent time on the beach, a rainy day proved to be the perfect opportunity to visit Lithica, a disused quarry that has been converted into a magical place. On the walk to the quarry, the appearance of a substation was an added bonus and I couldn't resist a photo with the pylon, for once, being upstaged by some serious electrical infrastructure. What caught my eye as much as anything was the rather striking blue glass insulator discs that you can just about make out in places. Anyway, back to Menorca which only has one traditional 245 MW power station near the capital Mahon. According to a recently published report, 97% of Menorca’s electricity demand in 2018 stemmed from the combustion of fuel oil and diesel at this power plant, while the contribution of renewable energy to the electric power system was 3%. The Menorca 2030 Strategy for decarbonising the island's energy system aims to do something about this by "placing Menorca at the forefront of clean energy usage and serving as a benchmark for other territories of the European Union". We had such a great time on the island that I might well go back annually to keep an eye on how the project is progressing. That's all for this month and I'm already working on November's pylon so hopefully, it won't be late!
Even the most unobservant readers of the blog will have spotted that August's Pylon of the Month is a bit different and I have @moakcarlsson to thank for bringing it to my attention on Twitter. I'll certainly be getting hold of a copy of the book she is currently writing that includes this and other CEGB adverts. The image of a pylon being plonked down by a hand from the sky is quite arresting and the issues raised in the text of the advert are as relevant today as they were over fifty years ago. Some headlines from the last few months:
The push for net zero bringing ever more sources of renewable energy online is behind almost all of these headlines and the ones that will surely follow them for the foreseeable future. The National Grid's recently published ‘Delivering for 2035: Upgrading the grid for a secure, clean and affordable energy future’ sets a target of 'Building over 5 times more transmission overhead or underground lines than we have built in the last 30 years'. It's hard to find too many people opposed to the idea of greater use of renewable energy, but whilst it's easy to support the idea in principle it all gets a bit messy when the pylons affect you rather than other people. It's pretty much a textbook definition of NIMBYism. Most of the objections to the routes chosen for the pylon lines could be addressed by spending a lot more money to bury the cables or, in some cases, routing them offshore but the cost of this is around ten times more expensive than traditional overhead lines, so unrealistic under most circumstances. That's all for this month. September will see a return to a pylon that you could actually visit if you were minded to do so!
After two pylonless months, July's pylon comes all the way from the hills outside Wellington, New Zealand. The picture was taken looking south with the Makara wind farm in the distance and beyond that the South Island, with the Cook Strait in between. Whenever I think about New Zealand, a couple of things spring to mind. The first is a piece of music called Land of the Long White Cloud by Philip Sparke that I played many years ago with Besses o' th' Barn brass band. I don't remember many pieces I played nearly forty years ago so something about it must have been special. You can hear it being played at the 2022 European Brass Band Championship. The second is an exchange between Queen Elizabeth and her equerry, Sir Kevin in Alan Bennett's novella, The Uncommon Reader:
"New Zealand, that land of sheep and Sunday afternoons….If one wanted to pass the time one would go to New Zealand".
I think it was meant as a gentle dig at New Zealand, but it's a country that is high up my list of places to visit and as my wife is a big rugby fan and has relatives there, she wouldn't take much persuading as long as we went during the rugby season.
Anyway, back to the pylon. It was emailed in by a fan of the blog who has been involved in the electricity industry for 30 years so the email was packed full of interesting links. The very first electricity generated in New Zealand was in 1888 and it was from a hydroelectric power plant in Reefton that supplied the inhabitants of the town at a cost of £3 per year for every light in the house. Today, around 90% of New Zealand's electricity is from renewable sources, and in the words of this month's pylon provider "Despite being a long stringy network, over difficult, mountainous, earthquake-prone terrain, and exposed to extremes of weather New Zealand enjoys a highly resilient and reliable transmission system". It also includes an HVDC cable that links the North and South Islands and although HVDC was being used for various projects from about 1954, the construction of the inter-island link from 1961-65 made it fairly cutting edge in technological terms. An interesting historical footnote is that the cables used for the link were made by a company, British Insulated Callender's Cables (BICC), that played a significant role in the construction of the British National Grid.
I'm resolved not to miss any more months this year, so although that's all I've got for now, I'll be back again soon!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!