Photo/IllutrationFallen trees and utility poles block a road in Kamogawa, Chiba Prefecture, on Sept. 11. (Provided by a resident)

Residents in Chiba Prefecture and in the vicinity have suffered an excruciatingly long period without electricity after Typhoon No. 15 severely damaged the local power grid on Sept. 9.

Two weeks after the start of one of the worst power outages in the history of Tokyo Electric Power Co., the major utility serving the region around Tokyo, more than 2,000 households were still without electricity.

It is all too depressing to imagine how life would be like when there is no electricity to cook meals or take a bath.

The utility, known as TEPCO, needs to do all it can to restore power to all these stricken households as soon as possible.

TEPCO has every duty to carry out a rigorous investigation to identify the causes of the large-scale power outage and the reasons for the serious delays in the restoration process. But problems and challenges have already become clear.

The main reason the power failure affected so many households in such wide areas for so long was that the fierce winds created by the typhoon felled or seriously damaged two transmission towers as well as an estimated 2,000 utility poles.

These facilities are designed to withstand winds blowing at a velocity of up to 40 meters per second. But a maximum instantaneous wind speed of 57.5 meters was registered in Chiba Prefecture during the typhoon.

Another typhoon, No. 17, which blew past areas close to Japan over the consecutive holidays through Sept. 23, caused power failures in Kyushu and other regions, also damaging utility poles.

While fallen trees and blown-off objects also damaged vital facilities, it is apparently necessary for TEPCO and other utilities to review their wind-resistance assumptions concerning power transmission facilities.

Okinawa Electric Power Co., which supplies power to a region that is frequently hit by powerful typhoons, ensures that its transmission towers can withstand winds of up to 60 meters per second.

There are more than 200,000 pylons and over 20 million utility poles across the nation.

In addition to replacing overhead power lines with underground cables as much as possible, other measures should also be taken to make the power grid less vulnerable to extreme winds and other risks according to the order of priority and cost-effectiveness estimates.

It is also crucial to take steps to ensure smooth power restoration in blackouts.

First of all, utilities should be able to assess the situation quickly and accurately.

Initially, TEPCO said it aimed to restore power to the affected areas in three days. But the company caused and exacerbated confusion as it repeatedly pushed back the target date.

That is because the utility’s responses were based on its past experiences although it was an unprecedented power outage that defied efforts to grasp the entire picture.

The company should resort to new technologies and alternative means to gather accurate information about damage, such as using drones for areas that are hard to access.

Needless to say, efforts to quicken the information-transmission process should not be made at the expense of accuracy.

Both Typhoon No. 15, which battered Chiba Prefecture, and last year’s Typhoon No. 21, which inflicted serious damage in wide areas in the western Kansai region, downed many trees, contributing to blackouts and hobbling restoration work by blocking roads.

There are clearly limits to what electric utilities can do in dealing with such situations.

Kansai Electric Power Co. reached an agreement with the Wakayama prefectural government this spring on a flexible division of labor in work to cut down and remove fallen trees.

Kansai Electric Power says it wants to strike similar deals with other local governments as well. This is an instructive attempt for other utilities and local governments.

An expert advisory panel for the central government has been discussing how the costs of restoration when power supply facilities are damaged by disasters should be shared.

One worthwhile idea calls for a system for major utilities to share such costs under which one company can more easily seek support from its peers in the industry during emergencies.

It is necessary to promote a broad and in-depth public debate on who should foot the bills in what ways.

With regard to efforts to provide relief to affected areas, one problem concerning use of power-generating vehicles has been revealed.

There were some cases where a shortage of workers licensed to operate such vehicles, due mainly to a flawed manpower deployment, made it impossible to use all the available vehicles.

It would be a good idea to make wider use of electric vehicles and small power generators as emergency power sources.

The problems and challenges highlighted by the massive power outage in Chiba Prefecture test the ability of electric utilities to accomplish their core mission of a stable power supply.

Simply restoring power should not be the sole goal.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 24