May 1, 2009
French Trio Re-Purposes Electrical Towers as Wind-Power Generators
Three young French designers hatch an ingenious plan to use existing infrastructure to create clean energy.
From the window of a TGV hurtling through France, the countryside flattens to a smudge—electrical towers rise and recede in clusters, and tall, lanky wind turbines seem to whip off pirouettes like a young Moira Shearer. Most passengers turn their heads, nodding off on a neighbor or burying their noses in Le Monde, but for a triumvirate of young designers, the sight is a view of the future. The passing turbines and pylons augur a new way to harness renewable energy in a country that relies almost entirely on nuclear power. “When we’re riding on the train, we al-ways see pylons, and some turbines too,” Nicola Delon says. “We say, ‘Both are here. Can’t we mix them together?’”
Delon, who is 31 and an architect, is the recipient of Metropolis’s 2009 Next Generation prize, along with Julien Choppin, also a 31-year-old architect, and Raphaël Ménard, a 34-year-old engineer. Their project, Wind-it, addresses this year’s theme—which beseeched entrants to “Fix Our Energy Addiction”—with the effortless simplicity of a Pythagorean proof. The team proposes inserting wind turbines into existing electrical towers or, where infrastructure is broken or spare, building new towers that double as wind-power generators, thus introducing a fount of renewable energy into an aspect of civilization that’s as certain as taxes. With three potential sizes, the turbine towers could be integrated nearly anywhere: Lille, France, China’s Sichuan Province, or the streets of New York City.
It’s a pitch-perfect echo of the cultural moment. In the past decade, sustainability has become a moral imperative on the order of civil rights. Countries across Europe, including France, are clambering to meet an EU-wide goal of drawing 20 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2020, and the United States, after eight years of cowboy environmentalism, is finally catching up. President Obama’s stimulus package allocates almost $50 billion to energy, most of it renewable. At the same time, the global economic crisis has turned lavish building plans into symbols of excess and redirected shovels at the long overdue, if unglamorous, task of improving public infrastructure. As Valerie Fletcher, executive director of the Institute for Human Centered Design and one of the contest’s judges, tells it, this is not an era for designers to tinker at the edges. “Things that might’ve been dismissed as pie in the sky, suddenly we were looking at them for potential practical use,” she says. “This was a time we had to think big.” Plenty of runners-up did just that—one calls for new zoning laws to allow mixed-use development in suburban subdivisions; another hopes to curb driving commutes through a centralized bicycle-loan system—but Delon and his team went a step further. “If you can change how energy is generated,” Fletcher says, “then you really have something that can change how we think about energy and how we use it.”
With its vast stores of largely untapped wind power, France is in many ways the consummate laboratory. Gales spread south from the English Channel into Normandy and gather at the shoals of the Mediterranean, where they spring upon the ancient Languedoc-Roussillon with rampart-jolting abandon. The most famous, the mistral (Provençal for “masterful”), is said to master everything in its path; last year, it helped the windsurfer Antoine Albeau capture the world speed record. It is also believed to drive residents to hair-pulling, eye-bulging, bats-in-the-belfry madness, not unlike California’s Santa Ana winds.
France expects to swell its wind-power capacity more than five times over by 2020, a plan that would require an army of new wind farms and has already inspired fierce opposition from the NIMBY brigades—fierce, even, for a country that considers protest a national sport. “There are a lot of people who are against wind turbines because they say it disfigures the landscape,” Delon says. “They say it’s awful and terrible and blah, blah, blah. We don’t agree, because we say, ‘We don’t have a choice. We prefer that instead of more nuclear plants.’”
Ménard has made a career out of marrying good motives to unlikely architecture. As director of Elioth, a 20-person conceptual- and experimental-research arm of the large French engineering firm Iosis Group, he has spent six years tackling complex engineering problems that often involve insinuating sustainable features into structures that aren’t exactly gracious hosts. Among them: Jean Nouvel’s Tour Signal and Valode & Pistre’s Tour Generali, two vanity skyscrapers slated for Paris’s démodé business district. Ménard has been trying to green them with small wind turbines. “This is quite in fashion,” Ménard explains. “It generates between two and five percent of the consumption of the building, but they are still little, tiny things. There is no reason they can’t be bigger.” Thinking about battles over new energy infrastructure, and mindful of the ubiquity of (and relative lack of controversy surrounding) existing infrastructure, Ménard started sketching wind turbines wedged into the landscape: on the side of a bridge, crowning an electricity pylon, filling a steel-mesh cone that looks like something out of Mad Max. He sketched the latter in 2006 while riding the TGV to Paris.
He slipped his early drawings to Delon and Choppin. Friends since school, the pair helm the small Parisian architecture firm Encore Heureux and had recently met Ménard at a design workshop in Venice. Encore Heureux translates to “Still Happy” or “I Should Hope So,” and since 2001 the firm has merrily skipped past classification, dabbling in public art, architecture, and pop culture—like Christo in Converse—and producing such whimsical works as artificial grass over subway grates and a tomato-red camel-transportation dock in Brussels (delightfully called Dromad Air). Ménard entreated the two to help him expand his idea—then just some splashes of ink in a Moleskine—and to paint it with their sunny optimism. Wind power in France: we should hope so!
The firms started meeting weekly to sketch, crunch numbers, and discuss. Should they mount turbines on multiple surfaces or just pylons? Should the pylons be old or new? Should they offer several sizes or only one? What type of turbine should they use? As a matter of thrift, they immediately narrowed the field to electricity towers. The closer the source of power to transmission lines, the more efficient the system and the less you have to build. Selecting wind turbines didn’t occasion much debate, either. Horizontal-axis turbines (the ones that look like airplane propellers) are the most common, but they wouldn’t be able to deftly navigate the awkward angles of a transmission tower. Vertical-axis turbines (the ones shaped like eggbeaters) could.
The biggest question was whether to design only original pylons or push a more sweeping agenda that would reconceive old pylons, sort of an adaptive-reuse scheme writ large. A new structure—what came to be called Wind-it XL—allowed Ménard to account for an array of constraints: wind effects, structural stability, height, turbine placement, and electrical transmission. But everyone agreed that the concept needed to be broader. “There are half a million pylons already in France,” Ménard says. “If you look to other countries, there are tens of millions. Even if the power is tiny, as soon as you integrate it like that, it creates big, big energy.” The team estimates that if a third of France’s high-voltage electricity towers were renovated with turbines, they could rival the power generation of two nuclear reactors, or about 5 percent of the country’s energy needs. “The genius of the proposal is that it solved probably the biggest issue of wind production,” says Alexandros Washburn, New York’s chief urban designer and a judge for the Next Generation competition, “which is where to locate these very large structures. By incorporating them into transmission towers, which are already located and of the same scale as wind towers, the idea of how it looks on the landscape is very cleverly integrated.”
A group of Stateside experts, including electrical and environmental engineers, a public-utility company, a sustainability consultant, and a wind-turbine manufacturer, reviewed the proposal for technical considerations. The general consensus was that the adaptive-reuse model would be tricky to justify financially. Electricity towers aren’t built to accommodate wind turbines, so they would likely require structural reinforcement, which could be either simple or prohibitively complex. The turbines would generate nom-inal energy—enough to power anywhere from one room in a house to 20 houses a year depending on size and wind speeds. They’re also more expensive up-front than their propeller counterparts, in large part because there isn’t much of a market for them. An added question is whether stacking turbines on top of one another from the ground up, kebablike, as Wind-it does, is the most economical means of capturing scudding gusts. As a rule, the farther you rise into the atmosphere, the more vigorous the winds and the more energy you’re able to harness. “There’s a slight naïveté about wind power’s potential in the design,” says Chris Garvin, a partner with the environmental consultancy Terrapin Bright Green, “but it’s compelling nonetheless.”
A marriage of towers and turbines isn’t unheard of. Urban Green Energy, a wind-power start-up in New York, recently mounted turbines atop the French telecom company Alcatel-Lucent’s cellular-communication spires. The turbines are nearly identical to those detailed in Wind-it. The major difference is that the Alcatel-Lucent system exhausts its power on-site; Wind-it proposes tapping into the grid. Anyone who has listened to Al Gore or (God forbid) T. Boone Pickens on the hustings lately knows that the American power grid is a great big Rube Goldberg machine, and a not very effective one at that. The grid is so clogged, archaic, and small that the areas where Wind-it could be most effective—the windswept prairies of North and South Dakota and the parched plains of Wyoming—are unfit to relay electricity to the cities where it’s most needed. It’s an obstacle for any wind-power entrepreneur in the country. For a fresh enterprise that leans almost entirely on existing infrastructure, it could be the coup de grâce. “The most efficient way to go about this,” says Nick Blitterswyk, cofounder of Urban Green Energy, “would be to build new towers.” Many of the experts we consulted agree. Wind-it XL was designed as a two-in-one package. It minds several, if not all, the issues above and would be best suited to regions where the nuts and bolts of modern civilization remain unassembled.
Wind-it made its public debut in May 2007 as part of an exhibition about energy and design sponsored by the national utility Électricité de France. With bright renderings, a clever name, and a carefully detailed model, the proposal attracted plenty of curiosity, if not the eye of a wealthy patron. “One company is dealing with energy transportation, and another is dealing with wind farms, and they’re not working together,” Delon says. “We spend one year and a half meeting people, and everyone says, ‘It’s interesting, but it’s really hard to make it real.’”
Delon’s patience has worn thin. “We’re not at a point of looking abroad, but maybe we have to,” he says. “France—it’s too slow here.” Possibilities lie elsewhere. Looking to retrofit its superannuated transmission lines, Turkey has telegraphed some interest, as have potential partners in the United States and Switzerland. Far across the globe, China, the great hope of architects and urban planners everywhere, recently approved a $600 billion stimulus plan—much larger than America’s, as a proportion of its GDP—and much of it is expected to go toward reviving the frenetic construction of railroads, airports, and sundry infrastructure that the country mounted before the economic slump. Wind-it would be a choice addendum.
The winners aren’t tethered to their concept in its present form. “It’s still a work in progress,” Delon says. “There is an intention of working in this shape and in this way of producing electricity, but it’s not final. We’ll work on the final one with the right person. As designers, we’re here to show potential, to make Wind-it real and serious. We want it to be built. Maybe it will be close to this version; maybe it will be different. The important thing is the efficiency of it and the story we’re telling.” They’ve thought big so far. It’s time for others to do likewise.