Something many visitors to Japan notice is the abundance of overhead power lines. Whether you’re in the suburbs, city center, or even rural communities, it’s rare to look up at the sky or towards the horizon without the view being crisscrossed by thick, black cables.
So why does Japan have so many above-ground power grids when so many other countries have gone subterranean? The easy answer is cost, but there’re also some purported advantages to stringing cables up on poles, and the country hasn’t quite reached a consensus on which is the better option.
Starting with the budgetary side of things, subterranean systems are a lot more expensive. With the added expenses of digging the ditches and properly installing the lines and conduits, the cost can balloon to ten times that of a comparably sized network of above-ground poles.
Still, some contend that, economic advantages aside, this isn’t the place to cut corners. Since the mid-1980s, the Japanese government has been enacting initiatives to replace existing poles with underground lines. Not only do such moves please those who’re tired of power lines marring the scenery, there are even safety and durability benefits, as below-ground power grids are less exposed to the elements, making them resilient against wind and snow that can damage above-ground equipment.
A further safety benefit has been observed during earthquakes, according to the NPO Non-Pole Community. The organization says that during the Hanshin Earthquake that struck Kobe in 1995, neighborhoods with above-ground power lines were much more extensively damaged. Non-Pole Community’s Secretary Toshikazu Inoue also referred to toppled poles blocking roads and preventing emergency vehicles from swiftly reaching victims in the disaster’s aftermath.
Still, the majority of Japan’s power grid remains above ground. One argument against subterranean systems has been put forward by the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO. While the company itself has publicized the superior aesthetics and durability against wind and snow mentioned above, it also acknowledges certain advantages to the more common above-ground system. “In the events of flooding or landslides, it’s harder to isolate damaged areas of a subterranean system,” the company points out. “That can increase the amount of time necessary to restore power to damaged areas.”
TEPCO also mentions other, simpler roles performed by power poles, such as providing housing for street lights and posting space for maps or address markers, which can be extremely helpful in navigating towns in Japan, where only a minuscule fraction of streets have names.
Reflecting the respective pros and cons of the two systems, Japanese Internet users are also unable to come to a consensus.
“No matter how much money it takes, we should be taking down power lines! Let’s get started and keep on going!”
“There’re places where they don’t look nice, but I think there’s a sort of rustic appeal to countryside towns with power line running above the buildings.”
Regardless of how things go in the future, though, with only about 7 percent of Tokyo’s central 23 wards currently having subterranean power networks, and even less of Osaka, power lines, like vending machines and ramen joints, are going to be part of the Japanese urban landscape for some time to come.
Sources: Ameba News, Jin
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