Drawing a line on power lines

Hiawatha Project opponents want a high-voltage line buried, or not at all

If Xcel Energy wins approval for its proposed Hiawatha Project in South Minneapolis, its new high-voltage power line won’t be hanging over the heads of Southwest residents.

Still, many observers say the 1.25-mile power line over the Midtown Greenway would impact people living near the southwest end of the bike and pedestrian corridor, too.

"If people are interested in smart growth and they like the idea of development continuing to concentrate itself along the Greenway, then they should be concerned about this," said Tim Springer, director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, a group that has been at the center of the power line debate.

Xcel Energy said population and development growth along East Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue was driving increased electricity demand. The 115-kilovolt transmission line would run between two new substations, one in the Midtown area and the other near the Greenway intersection with Hiawatha Avenue.

Xcel Energy was expected to submit a project application to the Public Utilities Commission by the end of March. Already delayed once, the application could be delayed again pending the outcome talks between the city, Hennepin County and Xcel.

The Midtown Greenway Coalition, the City Council and others have urged Xcel to find another solution to the growing power demand in South Minneapolis.

Springer said the Coalition’s concerns include the power line’s impact on future development in Midtown, a re-routing of the Midtown Greenway near Hiawatha Avenue and possible health effects. The Coalition urged Xcel to meet electricity needs through a combination of conservation and new technologies.

A resolution approved by the City Council in February asked Xcel to at least bury the line under East 28th Street if no other solution could be found.

Resolution co-author Council Member Robert Lilligren (6th Ward) said a building boom along the west end of the Midtown Greenway, particularly around Uptown, showed the corridor’s potential to spur development.

"Then try to imagine looking at that development under a high-voltage power line," Lilligren said. "It wouldn’t happen."

Hiawatha Project Manager Betty Mirzayi said Xcel had "put in millions of dollars worth of enhancements" to deal with the electricity demand in South Minneapolis.

"We’ve reached the limits of the fixes that we can do at that level," Mirzayi said.

At periods of peak demand, particularly hot summer days, Xcel customers in Midtown experience voltage fluctuations that can damage electrical equipment. High load on the area’s electrical infrastructure also can trigger power outages, Mirzayi said.

The Midtown Greenway Coalition and others have suggested a combination of conservation efforts and new renewable energy sources could solve the supply problems. But Mirzayi said those efforts would not be enough.

She said South Minneapolis already has "good participation" in Saver’s Switch, a voluntary program that allows Xcel to turn off residential air conditioners when demand peaks on hot days. Xcel also studied the potential for supplementing the area’s power supply with local solar and wind power, but determined they wouldn’t meet the demand.

"The need we have in the area is in the realm of about 50 megawatts," Mirzayi said, adding that conservation and renewable energy goals are "just not achievable at that amount."

Current estimates from Xcel put the combined cost of the two substations at either end of the line at about $24 million. The cost for an above ground transmission line is about $3 million.

Mirzayi said an underground line would cost nearly five times as much to install, closer to $15 million. That option remains on the table, despite the much larger price tag.

Mirzayi said Xcel was meeting with city and county representatives in March "to discuss potential financing options," but would not elaborate.

The Hiawatha Project could have a direct impact on some Southwest residents. Substations serve end-users up to three miles away, meaning the planned Midtown substation would be sending power to local electricity lines.

Jeff MacPhail, an intern in Council Member Lilligren’s office, said there was another reason Southwest should watch the outcome of the Hiawatha Project: It could be a Southwest neighborhood targeted for the next similar project.

MacPhail has worked closely with the Midtown Greenway Coalition, and was one of several people who suggested the Hiawatha Project was just one piece of a larger transmission line expansion.

"Essentially, we think [Xcel is] going at this piece-by-piece because it will be an easier battle," MacPhail said. "So, this is sort of the first battle in installing high-power transmission lines through the neighborhoods of Minneapolis."

Mirzayi acknowledged Xcel would continue to upgrade its Minneapolis power supply system, but did not mention specific projects.

Springer, of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, remained unconvinced that the Hiawatha Project was absolutely necessary. He continued to push for a conservation solution, one that would require reducing energy use in not just South, but Southwest Minneapolis, as well.

He and MacPhail have requested detailed information about energy use in the Midtown area.

"Xcel hasn’t provided the data, so we can’t even start the discussion of conservation and renewables in the area," MacPhail said.

At the core of arguments against the overhead power lines is a concern about the future of the Midtown Greenway. MacPhail said all Greenway users, not just regular bicycle commuters or Midtown residents, have a stake in the future of the path.
"What the Greenway is to the city, the county and a lot of people in Minneapolis is, it’s a new spine for green, smart, planned growth in South Minneapolis," he said. "It’s the spine for bike-able and walk-able communities in Minneapolis."