Outgoing Chairman of Study Committee B2 (Overhead Lines), Konstantin Papailiou, began the General Meeting this past CIGRE by singing Happy Birthday. What he was celebrating was the 125th anniversary of the first-ever overhead line – a three-phase AC line put into operation in summer 1891 and running from Laufen to Frankfurt. Back then, losses were about 25% but it was still seen as a technological marvel. Within 50 years, country after country linked growing availability of electricity with economic and social progress. Power lines were universally praised – even memorialized on postage stamps.
These days, few people collect stamps. And fewer still look at power lines with the pride and admiration they elicited in the past. So what happened?
There are several explanations for today’s public distrust and opposition to power lines. One is that, in spite of definitive evidence, they have been linked to health risks. People are easily frightened by what they cannot see and therefore easier to persuade that electromagnetic fields are somehow harming them. Then, there is the perceived blighting of urban and rural landscapes by unsightly transmission towers. Still others see lines as the far-reaching ‘tentacles’ of power plants that spew pollution and accelerate climate change. It’s clear that overhead lines have an image problem – in spite of all the benefits of electricity. No stamps have been issued to praise them for decades now.
At the recent 2015 INMR WORLD CONGRESS in Munich, one session was devoted to reviewing proposals for how structures of the future might look. There, expert after expert agreed that power lines have contributed to their present image problem by remaining mostly unchanged in appearance. Indeed, it’s hard to think of anything created by mankind that has not changed dramatically over the past 60 years – from cars to trains to boats to buildings to telephones to fashion. But many power lines built these days still resemble exactly what one finds on stamps from the 1940s and 50s. Just look at the Austrian stamp from 1947!
Of course, the primary goal has always been to deliver power reliably and affordably on a system that will last several decades. Without those criteria being met, little else matters. But we live in an age where appearance influences how things are perceived – if something looks old and outdated, it’s easy to oppose and perhaps even despise.
The good news is that the electricity supply industry has come to the realization that the lines of the future can no longer be built while relying solely on the designs of the past. The upcoming Q3, 2016 issue of INMR features an article that discusses how a TSO in a small, densely populated country has responded to the challenges facing new power lines. Engineers used a new project to deliver much more power, mainly from clean renewables, along existing corridors and while using compact towers. What society could find reason to complain about that?
The photo below also shows a 400 kV line running through the picturesque community of Rasta, near Oslo, Norway (see 420 kV Compact Design Served as Early Model for Line Design of the Future). Built over a decade ago, it was ahead of its time in terms of the effort to pass through a sensitive environment with elegant minimalism. While much more costly than conventional lattice structures, the real alternative here was not traditional towers but underground cable. By that measure, this was a clear success and possibly one of the first models for the thinking behind which lines of the future will have to be designed.
Marvin L. Zimmerman