Business

Koike's plan for Tepco to remove utility poles in Tokyo an Olympian task

by Tsuyoshi Inajima and Emi Urabe

Bloomberg

Making one of the world’s biggest cities beautiful is a task beleaguered Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. is unlikely to relish.

Tepco, which is facing $144 billion in cleanup costs in the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, has been assigned the task of removing hundreds of thousands of utility poles across Tokyo so that visitors to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics can enjoy the urban landscape without the unsightly items sticking up everywhere.

While this adds to the burden of the embattled company, which is paying compensation to victims after the triple meltdown left it on the verge of default and in need of a government bailout, Yuriko Koike may not have sympathy. The Tokyo governor, co-author of the book “No Power Pole Revolution,” wants to accelerate plans to remove the poles from the metropolis — a project that could cost over ¥760 billion.

“The government and the public say Japan has too many power poles and cables compared to other countries and wonder, ‘What’s wrong with Japan?’ ” said Makoto Imabeppu, a manager at Tepco’s power grid unit. “We think the current circumstances won’t allow us to say we don’t want to do it because of costs.”

There are almost as many utility poles scattered across Japan as there are cherry trees — about 35 million — and a walk down any alley or side street will take you under a network of overhead cables held higher with concrete, steel or wooden piles. This has raised criticism the city’s development is too far behind the likes of Paris, London and Hong Kong, where 100 percent of power lines are buried underground versus just 7 percent in central Tokyo.

But it’s not just from the aesthetic point of view.

Koike argues that the poles could exacerbate a catastrophe should a large earthquake hit the capital. There’s a 70 percent chance a magnitude-7 quake will hit the metropolitan area over the next 30 years, according to government predictions. Koike, who experienced the magnitude-6.9 Kobe tremor in 1995 that left over 6,000 people dead, warns that power poles often topple over and block roads during big quakes, thereby restricting access for emergency vehicles and also causing fires to break out.

“I want to reduce the number of poles in Tokyo to zero,” Koike said in a speech in December. “As well as collapsing and holding up relief efforts in the event of a disaster, they’re damaging the scenery.”

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government plans to start or complete work burying 916 km of cable, currently hanging from poles, over five years through the end of the fiscal year ending March 2019 before eventually laying 1,442 km of wires underground across the city. Work to bury 1 km of cable underground costs about ¥530 million, according to an estimate by the land ministry, meaning costs could amount to as much as ¥764 billion.

Though the central government and municipalities will shoulder two-thirds of the bill, the rest will fall on utilities such as Tepco and Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp., according to Seigo Arie, a manager at the metropolitan government’s construction bureau. About 5.9 million poles are in Tokyo and surrounding areas supplied by the utility, according to Imabeppu.

Tepco has agreed to help lay about 100 km a year of underground cables by 2019, and the work will cost the company ¥16.5 billion annually, Imabeppu said. The long-term goal to totally rid the capital of poles has no deadline, according to the Tokyo government.

“Hiding cables underground costs 10 times more than above-ground lines,” said Imabeppu. “That’s one of the major issues for us.”

The other is logistics.

Koike has a long way to go to achieve her target, with as many as 15,000 new utility poles erected in areas supplied by Tepco every year, Imabeppu says. Often the utility also has to negotiate with landowners to put a transformer and other above-ground facilities on their property.

For managers at Tepco, finding the time to bury cables while contending with the nuclear meltdown is another thorn in their side. But it’s also one they say they’re unable to refuse.

“We are not against the Tokyo government’s plans,” said Kenichiro Matsui, a spokesman for Tepco Power Grid Inc. “But we have to find the best way to do it as we don’t have inexhaustible funds.”