Tokyo Faces $6.8 Billion Bill to Get Rid of Ugly Cables Before Olympics

  • Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike wants to remove utility poles
  • Government wants overhead cables buried before 2020 Olympics

Tepco's $6.8B Olympian Challenge

Making the world’s biggest city beautiful is a task Japan’s beleaguered Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc. is unlikely to relish.

The company known as Tepco, which faces $144 billion in clean up costs for the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown, has been assigned with removing hundreds of thousands of utility poles across Tokyo so visitors to the 2020 Olympics can enjoy uninterrupted views of its famous cherry blossoms and neon-lit streets.

Powerlines and the Tokyo Skytree.

Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

While this adds to the burdens of the embattled company, which is paying compensation to victims after a 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 as much as $6.8 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 looks. Koike argues that the poles could exacerbate a catastrophe should a large earthquake hit Tokyo. There’s a 70 percent chance a magnitude 7 quake will hit the capital area over the next 30 years, according to the government. Koike, who experienced the magnitude 6.9 Kobe tremor in 1995 that killed over 6,000 people, warns that power poles tend to collapse during big quakes and block emergency vehicles from passing, causing fires to sweep through the city.

Zero Pole Goal

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

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The Tokyo government plans to start or complete works to bury 916 kilometers of currently-overhead cables over five years through the end of the fiscal year ending March 2019 before eventually laying 1,442 kilometers of wires underground across the the city. Placing one kilometer of underground cables costs about 530 million yen ($4.76 million), according to an estimate by Japan’s land ministry, meaning costs could stretch to as much as 764 billion yen.

Tepco added 0.5 percent to 438 yen on Monday after falling 7.6 percent this year through Friday. The benchmark Topix index increased 0.3 percent to pare this year’s losses to 0.1 percent.

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 Tokyo metropolitan government’s construction bureau. About 5.9 million poles are in Tokyo and surrounding areas supplied by Tepco, according to Imabeppu.

A Major Issue

Tepco has agreed to help lay about 100 kilometers a year of underground cables by 2019, costing the company 16.5 billion yen a year, Imabeppu said. The long-term goal to totally rid the city’s poles has no deadline, according to the Tokyo government.

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

The other issue is logistics. There’s a long way to go for Koike 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.”

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