To move power lines underground, bury bureaucratic sectionalism, too

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

It is necessary for the central government and electric power companies to curb the construction of new utility poles and promote underground power lines that are resistant to disasters.

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

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

No matter how the removal of utility poles is promoted in a planned manner, the effort will be futile if the number of poles simultaneously increased in unexpected places.

Multiple government ministries have administrative jurisdiction over utility poles. The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry supervises roads; the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry oversees electricity; and the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry is in charge of telecommunications. It seems that cooperation among related organizations, including business operators, has been insufficient.

This fiscal year, the infrastructure ministry plans to investigate for the first time the areas where utility poles will be built and their purposes with the cooperation of the economy ministry. Based on the results, the infrastructure ministry intends to consider measures to curb the construction of new utility poles. Effective measures must be taken by eliminating bureaucratic sectionalism among relevant ministries.

Aren’t there plans to install the poles on evacuation routes and major transportation roads in the event of disasters? Checking installation sites from the viewpoint of disaster prevention is of the foremost importance.

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

It could be worth considering such measures 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 Trough.

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

In Japan, the shift to an electric pole-free system has been stalled due to huge costs and time-consuming work. The construction costs ¥530 million per kilometer of road, and the average construction period is seven years. The central and local governments shoulder two-thirds of the cost, with the remainder being paid by business operators.

The central and local governments are in fiscal straits. It may be realistic to prioritize areas where power lines need to be underground for disaster prevention, and as for the other areas, focus on planned urban development sites in large cities. The central government should clarify its priorities.

The central government and business operators also need to make efforts to cut costs and shorten the construction period.

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