Station to station: the new power generation

The architecture of Britain's latest wave of energy plants is the finest since Bankside in the 1940s

Britain is poised to enter a new golden age of power station design that could surpass the creation of architecturally magnificent temples of energy such as the Bankside and Battersea plants in London, and the surreally beautiful chimneys of more modern power stations like those at Drax and Didcot. More than 20 new energy plants are on the way – and iconic design, coupled with greater community involvement and the use of biofuels, have become burning issues at a time when European and British legislation is putting tougher restrictions on power-station carbon emissions and landfill.

Two power stations on the London Olympic site, designed by John McAslan + Partners and Nord Architecture, set a benchmark for outstanding design. But it is the massive £150m biofuel-burning plant at Stockton-on-Tees, designed by Thomas Heatherwick and due for completion in 2013, that will take British power stations into the Bilbao Guggenheim league of architectural icons.

The woodchip-fired plant's extraordinary form will rise like a grass-covered Narnia castle from four hectares of industrial wasteland, and supply power to 50,000 homes in the Middlehaven regeneration area via a Scandinavian-style district-heating system. The plant's creator, BEI Teesside, says this fusion of biofuels and a local heating grid will make it twice as energy-efficient as ordinary power plants, and generate a fraction of the carbon output.

Mr Heatherwick says: "We need to find new ways to incorporate these buildings into our lives and make them of benefit to society. Britain has a heritage of amazing power stations. Now, with the impetus of alternative energy production, we have an opportunity to make new power buildings to fit this age."

The use of biofuels and waste are at the heart of this quantum-jump in design thinking, and many of these power plants will be built near port or estuary regeneration zones, where several thousand tons of biofuel can be shipped in every week. It's an acid test for architects: how do they design football pitch-sized plants close to dense urban areas without blighting them, visually?

Many of this new wave of power plants have the potential to become design icons – but not all. While projects such as the waste-powered Eco Energy Park in south-west London seem promising, others, such as the forthcoming plant for Thames Gateway Power, are, so far, less than compelling. Thomas Bender of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment says well-designed waste management facilities will be seen as pioneering industrial buildings that increase civic pride – "but we see too many schemes which lack ambition and don't regard these buildings as an exciting design challenge".

The difference between creating a brilliantly designed power station and dumping a supersized architectural minger on the landscape depends on how the buildings' shells are designed.

"The outer skins of power plants are 10 per cent of their total cost," says the Teesside project director Matthew Day. "By spending 10 per cent more on the skin you can make the form of a power station really special."

Hyper-trendy architects such as the Dutch practice MVRDV, and its Why Factory think tank, propose more radical and hallucinatory approaches: 10-storey high solar "flowers" off the coast of Phuket in Thailand, for example, and gigantic grids of greenhouses raised above the city blocks of Barcelona.

But could neighbourly architectural modesty be the key to truly revolutionary power-station design? Dow Jones Architects, a bright young London practice, was commissioned by Design for London and the London Development Agency to investigate the creation of local waste-burning power plants no bigger than a small blocks of flats.

"A waste-burning plant processing the domestic waste from a London borough would create enough heat for more than 11,000 homes, and enough electricity for 25,000 homes," explains Alun Jones. "The intelligent use of waste for power can form the core of local redevelopment strategies. My own south London borough sends its recycling to China for processing – but how can this be a good idea?

"We eat organic, buy fair trade coffee, and get electricity from green suppliers," he says. "But we don't seem to care, or have any choice about, what is happening to our waste. Making it a local issue is key. Why can't we have low-cost local heat and power – and a small but architecturally beautiful waste-burning power station at the end of the street?"

Energetic designs...

Energy Centre, Olympic site, London by Nord Architecture

Nord is one of Britain's most highly regarded younger practices; it made its name with small buildings that were contextually surprising, carefully detailed, and obdurate. The black brick of its power station evokes a vast piece of coal that's as striking as the black obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Energy Centre, Olympic site, London by John McAslan + Partners

McAslan is one of the most stringent architectural rationalists, and this scheme brings a super-crisp modernism to power station design. The practice has avoided excess – though the blood-red staircase is positively surreal by its standards. The semi-opaque metal screening and low-level glazing lends the design a diagrammatic clarity; it also gives power generation an almost literal visibility.

Eco Energy Park, south-west London by Buckley Gray Yeoman

The architects of this £30m scheme have treated the design as a landscaping exercise. Almost half of the 150m-long shell will be covered in grass. The structure has no obvious typology, and its peaks and troughs will have the important effect of reducing its sense of mass.

GEI Power Station by Heatherwick Studio

They really do know how to large it on Teesside, and Thomas Heatherwick's design for the biofuel power station at Stockton-on-Tees will give Middlehaven's industrial wasteland the look of a sci-fi book cover. Beneath the hyperbole is simple architectural logic: the segmented and stepped form conceals an 85m chimney with considerable grace. The design makes bigness look almost entertaining – but if the finer details are value-engineered into oblivion, it could fail horribly as an architectural spectacle.

Thames Gateway Power, Dagenham by Race Cottam Associates

Where's the joy? There's nothing here that immediately lifts the spirit, but that may be because of the sheer size of the 279m-long building. Making it a low-strung structure ("I'm not really here, honest!") is intelligent, but isn't enough. This scheme could yet be a relatively civil presence in Dagenham – but only if the architects produce superbly designed details.