How Japan is moving its energy infrastructure underground

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Japan’s government wants to rob the country of a tradition of urban development: overhead power lines. So far, the tangle of above-ground power cables across Nippon’s streets and alleys has been an attraction of its own. While in many German cities almost all cables are laid underground, it is less than ten percent in the megacity of Tokyo.

In the streets of the residential areas in particular, electricity and telephone lines are supplied to the houses above ground. Even narrow streets must therefore give way to concrete pylons from which thick cable harnesses hang in several layers. But now the government wants to at least partially “bury” this impressive tangle of cables.

It wants to do that by 2025 Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Lay 4,000 kilometers of these overhead lines underground. Initially, the planners are concentrating on roads that are used to transport rescue workers and goods in the event of an earthquake disaster. But the cable chaos should also be buried at popular tourist destinations.

The Ministry justified this – renewed – initiative with an improvement in disaster prevention and a beautification of the landscape. Several mega tremors have shown that underground power cables are far less destroyed by the vibration than above-ground ones, where the masts vibrate badly and often topple over.

And earthquakes are just a force of nature that Japan has to live with. In its last meeting, the committee of experts underlined the need for mast removal with impressive images of Typhoon 15 from 2019. In Tokyo’s neighboring prefecture of Chiba, it not only felled trees, but also power poles for the energy supply.

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Large parts of the prefecture then had to do without electricity for days. One reason for the slow construction work was that overturned masts blocked the streets. Especially in the case of earthquake disasters, this is a horror scenario for the planners, because fire brigades then have poor access to the sources of fire. In addition, the experts tried to use pictures of tourist attractions such as the national monument Mount Fuji or the more than 600-meter-high Tokyo Skytree television tower to demonstrate how much the cables spoil the view (and the photos of it).

These findings are not new. The initiative to lay underground cables began as early as the 1960s. But since then only between 200 and 450 kilometers have been buried each year. Because the power companies shied away from the higher costs of laying the cables. They also argued that, for example, in landslides and flood works, employees can identify defective spots more quickly.

But recently the ministry has accelerated the initiative to make Japan’s cities more earthquake-resistant and prettier. Another catalyst is that new technologies and national standards have reduced costs. Further savings of 20 percent are planned in the current five-year plan.

Japan has always tried everything possible with electronics – and often the impossible. Every Thursday our author Martin Kölling reports here on the latest trends from Tokyo.

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However, resistance to underground power grids appears to remain strong. For example, the committee appeals to the municipalities not to use electricity pylons when building new roads – and to the ministry to come up with convincing arguments against those who refuse.

Japan’s journey to European cityscapes is therefore still long. The new plan will only increase the proportion of emergency roads without electricity pylons from 38 to 52 percent. And in many residential districts, the power supply funeral hasn’t even started yet.


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