To move power lines underground, bury bureaucratic sectionalism too

Power lines are buried underground to eliminate utility poles, but new utility poles are being installed above ground at a faster rate.

It is necessary for the central government and power companies to curb the construction of new power poles and promote disaster-resistant underground power lines.

The law for the promotion of the elimination of electric poles came into force in 2016 for the purposes of disaster prevention and landscape preservation. From fiscal year 2018 to fiscal year 2020, the government promoted a plan to eliminate utility poles on a total of 2,400 kilometers of road. Currently, the removal of 40,000 utility poles has been undertaken on approximately 80% of roads.

However, 70,000 electric poles have been installed in the meantime. In many cases, the power companies installed them when the houses were built, but the government would not know the details of where they were installed or how many.

However the removal of utility poles is promoted in a planned manner, the effort will be wasted if the number of utility poles increases simultaneously in unexpected places.

Several government departments have administrative jurisdiction over utility poles. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism oversees roads; the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry oversees electricity; and the Ministry of Interior and Communications is responsible for telecommunications. It seems that the cooperation between the organizations concerned, including the economic operators, has been insufficient.

During this exercise, the Ministry of Infrastructure plans to investigate for the first time the areas where the power poles will be built and their purposes with the cooperation of the Ministry of Economy. Based on the results, the Ministry of Infrastructure intends to consider measures to curb the construction of new electricity poles. Effective measures must be taken by eliminating bureaucratic sectionalism between the ministries concerned.

Isn’t it planned to install poles on the evacuation routes and major roads in the event of a disaster? Verification of installation sites from a disaster prevention perspective is of the utmost importance.

The Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 toppled 8,000 utility poles, and the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 knocked down nearly 60,000. In recent years, many utility poles have collapsed even during large typhoons, causing large-scale power outages. Electric poles blocked roads and even hampered evacuation and restoration.

It might be worth considering measures such as minimizing the construction of new utility poles in areas where damage is expected in the event of an earthquake directly beneath the Tokyo metropolitan area or another in the Nankai Trench.

The rate of buried power lines is 100% in London and Paris, while it is 96% in Taipei. In contrast, the rate in the 23 wards of Tokyo is 8% and in the city of Osaka it is 6%.

In Japan, the switch to a poleless electricity system has been blocked due to huge costs and time-consuming works. Construction costs 530 million yen per road kilometer, and the average construction time is seven years. Central and local governments bear two-thirds of the cost, with the rest paid by economic operators.

Central and local governments are in budgetary difficulty. It may be realistic to prioritize areas where power lines must be underground for disaster prevention and, as with other areas, to focus on planned urban development sites in major cities. The central government should clarify its priorities.

The central government and economic operators should also make efforts to reduce costs and shorten the construction period.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 19, 2021.

Bonny J. Streater