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Underground Power, Telco Lines In Phl? It’s Possible But...

Underground Power, Telco Lines In Phl? It’s Possible But...
Toppled electrical posts caused by Typhoon Odette lie along a street in Cebu City on Dec. 17, 2021. Photo by AP

With the mass devastation left by Typhoon Odette in parts of Visayas and Mindanao just before Christmas – leaving power lines and telecommunications down for several days – is it time for the Philippines to transition that all its utility lines be placed underground?

For tycoon Manuel V. Pangilinan,  chairman of the MVP Group of Companies, transferring all utility lines underground will make it more resilient to future typhoons. However, the transition would take a long time and require a lot of resources.

“The short answer is put it underground. But the question is how much will it cost and who will pay for it? You cannot do it in one year or even five years. You got to have a long-term plan, 10 years, 15 years,” Pangilinan told “The Chiefs” on One News on Thursday, Dec. 23. 

 “It costs a lot of money, so the question is who’s going pay for it? Is it the company?  Is it the consumer? Or a bit of both?” he added.

Odette Causes P1.56-B Damage To Power Sector

Presidential aspirant and Vice President Leni Robredo earlier said it is now high time to give serious consideration to putting power and communication lines in typhoon-prone areas underground.

“First, in the long run, this would be cost-effective compared to the recurring costly rehabilitation of above-ground electric and communication lines and posts which are felled and destroyed by typhoons,” she said in a Facebook post following a visit to areas affected by Odette.

“Second, the disruption and absence of power and communication services adversely affect the economy and business. Third, the extension of health, hygiene and sanitation services is greatly hampered. This includes the conduct of both virtual and face-to-face classes,” she added.

Before this, several bills have been filed before Congress for the establishment of a nationwide underground cable system, such House Bill No. 5845 filed by Bagong Henerasyon Party-List Rep. Bernadette Herrera-Dy.  

The bill, currently pending at the committee level, would mandate all companies, service providers and industries that use wires or cables to relocate them underground.

Pangilinan, who chairs the boards of power utility Manila Electric Company (Meralco) and telecommunications company PLDT Inc., said the establishment of underground cables would be better for the country, but stressed that “it’s not as easy as it looks.” 

“Let’s say for Meralco, it will take putting all wires underground. That should all be connected. Because Meralco posts are used by (other) companies, they are also being used by all of the telcos,” he said, referring to the only power distributor in Metro Manila.

“So if everybody puts their system underground – including by the way water concessionaires, those are already underground – if these are also connected, you could share the cost of the infrastructure, but you have to have the approval of the regulator, but we just cannot do it,” he added.

Urban planner Paulo Alcazaren, meanwhile, said that while it is feasible to transfer utility cables underground as “the tech has gotten better,” the challenge would be placing them in most cities as some areas lack proper urban planning. 

“It will take a lot of capital to transition below the ground,” Alcazaren told “The Chiefs.” “But it is possible it is safe, you can deal with earthquakes, you can deal with flooding and it all depends on how well you plan cities so you know where you need conduits underground.” 

He noted the lack of coordinated planning, citing the challenge of knowing where to put the cables without affecting other systems.

“We have a failure of planning, you cannot do this underground thing since it’s expensive unless you know beforehand like in Singapore, they know 10 years, 20 years beforehand,” he said.

“They know the density of the buildings, they know the number of people, the number of utilities, the power requirements, drainage et cetera. That’s planning, what we have is after the fact,” he added.