Material matters - Banking on a legacy

Materials World magazine
,
29 Oct 2012

Much of the renewables energy debate today centres around cost and subsidy versus emissions reduction and sustainability. Long term legacy is rarely mentioned unless you happen to be Donald Trump and vehemently opposed to an offshore windfarm development in full view of the first tee of your new multi-million pound golf course development in Aberdeenshire.

In order to make its point, the Trump Organisation sponsored a full page advert in the local press showing photographs of broken and abandoned wind turbines as an apocalyptic view of Scotland. Not surprisingly, the advert resulted in several complaints, which were upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority on the grounds that it was misleading (there being regulations in place to prevent the turbines from deteriorating to the condition shown in the photograph) and unsubstantiated, as the Scottish Government’s 2020 Routemap for Renewable Energy in Scotland estimates the potential number of onshore turbines to be significantly less than the 8,500 claimed in the advert.  

Despite Trump’s chutzpah, and whatever your personal opinion on the renewables debate, it does pose an important question about the legacy that is left long after a power station has ceased production. Most are decommissioned and dismantled, but some live on, albeit in a completely different guise. One of the best examples is Tate Modern on London’s Southbank, located in the converted Bankside power station, itself on the site of a previous coal-fired power station. In fact, the debate on windfarms is uncannily similar to the post-war debate that surrounded the decision to build an oil-fired power station at a time when most electricity was generated from coal.  

For one thing, much of the opposition revolved around the visual impact and whether it was appropriate to site major industrial infrastructure in the centre of urban areas. Another argument was whether it should be coal, at that time still a self-sufficient national resource, or oil that was dependent on imported supplies. A public enquiry held on 14–18 January 1947 (unlike today’s enquiries, which drag on for years) noted, ‘The South Bank... is notoriously ugly and even a large new industrial building could not seriously affect it,’ despite rejecting the application in favour of expanding the existing coal-fired plant.  

In the same way as today’s energy debate, there was a sense of urgency heightened during the exceptionally severe winter of 1947 that resulted in coal shortages and power cuts, and led to the initial local planning decision being overturned by national Government in favour of an oil-fired power station. Ironic as it may seem today, oil was considered a more environmentally friendly option then, because it did not generate the dust and soot associated with burning coal.  

And so it was that Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s iconic power station was built and generated electricity for almost 30 years until the oil crises of the 1970s made it uneconomic. In 1994, the site was acquired by Tate Modern to begin the transformation into the extraordinary gallery that opened in May 2000. The massive turbine hall is now a dramatic entrance and the boiler house converted to six floors of exhibition and gallery space. Even the underground oil storage tanks have been turned into a space for performing arts.  

It is hard to imagine redundant wind turbines becoming works of art, but then back in 1947 no-one could have imagined Bankside housing works from Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso (Damien Hirst not even being born). But compared to offshore platforms and nuclear power stations, dismantling old wind turbines has got to be even easier than making modern art, and certainly a lot cheaper.   

For more information on Bankside, visit the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society website, www.glias.org.uk, in particular Stephen Murray’s essay on the e-papers page, The Rise, Fall and Transformation of Bankside Power Station, 1890–2010.