Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cleaning up the power utility poles/lines for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

The Abe government's schedule for restructuring the Japanese electric power system -- ultimately leading to some kind of separation of generation, transmission and distribution functions -- leads to the year 2020.  

By coincidence, 2020 is also the year of the Tokyo Olympics, which will be the target of an effort by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLITT?) to bury power cables in core areas of Tokyo.

The story in Nikkei (September 29) indicates that whereas 100% of electric cables are buried in London, Paris and Hong Kong, in Tokyo 23 wards the percentage is more like 40%, Osaka lower yet, and Nagoya only 20%.  Overall in Japan only something like 15% of electric cables are buried.  Indeed, for many decades the mess of overhead cables and numerous reinforced concrete poles criss-crossing the countryside are one of the most remarked-upon aspects of Japan--the nation's worst eyesore. 

As Japanologist Alex Kerr wrote in 1994 in his classic Lost Japan:

"And the electric wires!  Japan is the only advanced nation in the world that does not bury electric lines in its towns and cities, and this is a prime factor in the squalid visual impression of its urban areas.  Out in the suburbs, the use of electric lines is even worse."  

"I was once taken to see the new Yokohama residential district Kohoku New Town, and was amazed at the multitude of enormous steel pylons and smaller utility poles clustered everywhere--a hellish web of power lines darkening the sky above one's head.  This is a site considered a model of urban development. ..."  

The plan just announced is now to eliminate all utility poles from areas in Tokyo near train stations, airports and other places that tourists are likely to visit.  The reasoning is said to be for both improved view/aesthetics and also for greater resilience in event of natural disasters.  The plan covers approximately 130 kilometers (80 miles) of streets.

The total cost is estimated at 78 billion yen (approximately $780 million).  Bear in mind that this price tag will only deal with the issue in the most crowded and central areas of Tokyo -- an area in which 80% of cables are already buried.  The cost will be shared, one-third borne by the national government, one-third by the Tokyo Metro government, and one-third by the electric utilities whose wires will be moved (NTT and TEPCO, in this case).  As a taxpayer to both the national and Tokyo governments and a forced customer of both NTT and TEPCO, I guess I am a significant contributor to the effort. Still, in this case, the expense is long overdue.

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