Hiawatha high voltage lines: Xcel proposes, community questions, council considers on Monday


During a pair of open houses on January 15 at Plaza Verde on Lake Street, Xcel Energy revealed details about its proposed Hiawatha Project — a plan to build two new substations connected by a pair of 115 kilovolt power lines in the Midtown area of South Minneapolis.

Xcel says the new infrastructure is needed to “meet capacity deficiencies” amid increasing demand in the area and to update the area’s existing delivery system, which was designed and installed in the 1940s and 1950s. The project will add 100 megawatts of power. One megawatt can provide power for 750 homes, according to Betty Mirzayi, project manager for Xcel.

Just days earlier, on January 12, community members, neighborhood organization leaders and public officials met in the very same room to air their questions and sometimes-common concerns about the project and to try to organize a united effort to work with — or perhaps against — Xcel on the issue.

The details come as Xcel prepares to apply for permission for the project from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) — a year-long process that will include more public participation, meetings and hearings, as well as the drafting of an environmental impact statement (EIS).

Specifics of the Hiawatha Project

Details presented at the Xcel open houses included Xcel’s preferred locations for the two substations and the route along which the lines might run. (To see map and illustrations, click here.)

The eastern substation would be located southeast of Hiawatha Avenue at South 28th Street on vacant land currently owned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDoT) and the Canadian Pacific railroad. The eastern substation would feature “low-profile” construction, meaning less of the equipment would be visible above, but that the station would require a larger footprint.

The western substation would be “high-profile” on a smaller footprint between Portland and Oakland avenues at 29th Street. That site, covering the southern third of the bock, includes an old, unused Xcel-owned facility, as well as a condemned property and a vacant lot that Xcel would have to acquire.

Between the two, a line of 15–17 “double-circuit” transmission towers, approximately 75 feet tall, would carry two overhead 115-kilovolt lines at street level along East 29th Street. The transmission towers would be located in what Mirzayi called a “buffer zone” above the Midtown Greenway trench. East of 18th Avenue, the line would follow the greenway and 28th Street, and one transmission pole would be located in the greenway trench near the Midtown exchange at 10th Avenue.

The proposed route is the only one that allows for double-circuit tower arms on either side to bear both of the high-voltage lines, said Mirzayi. Other options could require twice as many towers.

More information about the Hiawatha Project is available on Xcel’s website

Not in the greenway

Mirzayi said Xcel looked at placing the towers below street level, in the greenway trench owned by Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority (HCRRA), but “it was never a serious consideration.”

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said at the January 12 community forum that the HCRRA (which he chairs) “put over $20 million into the Midtown Greenway.”

“We own the land,” said McLaughlin. “We’re not about to turn this over to building high-tension wires that are going to compromise [the amenity and investment around the greenway].”

“Ask developers if they would build under high-voltage lines, and they say no,” said Tim Springer, executive director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, which is also concerned about the site of the eastern substation, which would be built near now-open land near the east side of the Sabo bridge that has long been planned as green space.

The existing 45-foot poles that currently carry electricity along the route would be buried underground. While that $4 million aspect is figured into the project’s $15 million cost, Mirzayi said it would cost another $15.8 million to bury the new lines, as well — an alternative that some community members and city officials prefer. Xcel notes that the increased cost would be passed on to its retail costumers.

Despite worries that the urban project would require the taking of homes, Mirzayi said that only one property — the condemned structure at Portland and 29th Street — would need to be acquired.

Community concerns and questions

The community forum on January 12 was sponsored by the Phillips Community Energy Cooperative (PCEC) and the Greenway Coalition. Approximately 50 people attended, many representing various neighborhood organizations in the area.

Community concerns include health risks related to electrical and magnetic fields, and an adverse affect on aesthetics, businesses and further development in the area. Many expressed a hope that Xcel would explore alternatives to the Hiawatha Project.

Asked about the possibility of installing “smartgrid” technology — load management systems that can reduce peak electricity demands — Mirzayi said that Xcel is currently testing such technology in Boulder, Colo., but that it would not be available in time for the Hiawathta Project. The two substations would have “smart aspects,” such as enhanced maintenance, monitoring and control, she said.

Concerns at the January 12 forum also included the possibility that more infrastructure would be added, as soon as 2013, to link the eastern substation to another new substation near Highway 280.

Indeed, the project map highlights for possible expansion to two properties adjacent to the proposed substation — industrial sites, currently occupied, between which the Midtown Greenway runs from Hiawatha to Minnehaha avenues.

Mirzayi said expansion could add another 345 kilovolts at “one giant substation,” allowing for connection to the Highway 280 substation, but she gave a timeframe of 18–20 years from now.

Show me the needs study

Community members and city officials have also asked to see Xcel’s needs study for the project, and the Greenway Coalition, several city council members and others are asking Xcel to delay its application for a permit from the PUC. (Read the Greenway Coaliton’s resolution and questions posed to Xcel here)

Jim Grote, representing Abbott Northwestern Hospitals Facilities Management, gave some hard evidence of the need, reporting that, in the past 29 months, the hospital has experienced 296 “significant power quality or reliability issues” — especially in the summer — including equipment failures and disruption in patient care.

“Our interest is in clean, reliable power that is safe,” said Grote, who added that his company is “very interested in due diligence being performed” by Xcel on the Hiawatha Project. “We’ve invested a lot of money into this neighborhood, and we want to see the neighborhood succeed,” he said. “If there are health risks involved, we’re concerned about that. He also reminded the crowd that “the infrastructure is a critical component. It’s 50 years old.”

According to marketing materials, Xcel conducted a 20-year “long-range electric delivery system study,” which will be made public as part of the PUC application, said Mirzayi. She said Xcel expanded the study based on comments and questions from the public and the Greenway Coalition, and that it includes an evaluation of renewable energy options that support Xcel’s claim that such practices, as well as conservation, will not negate the need for the Hiawatha Project.

Public participation and avenues for action

Xcel chose the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) — rather than the City of Minneapolis – as the approving body for the project. The reason, said Mirzayi, is that the city’s process is “not well-defined” and lacks the timeframe necessary for the project. Furthermore, the PUC is “a body that has expertise” on the subject, she said.

While the city has no approval power, a public hearing on the project will be held before the City Council’s Health, Energy, & Environment Committee meeting on January 26 at 1:30 p.m. in council chambers, room 317 in City Hall. The City Council resisted an attempt by Council Members Schiff, Gordon and Lilligren to vote on a resolution (similar to the Greenway Coalition’s) at its January 9 meeting.

Still, Schiff told community members he hopes city action will influence the PUC. “This is not just a neighborhood issue, because … the next one may be connecting from one substation to Prospect Park, down Central Avenue — who knows how far they’ll go, as long as [Xcel pursues] 20th century solutions to 21st century problems.”

State Rep. Karen Clark addressed concerns about the cumulative health impact of the project in a community that already includes an arsenic superfund site and high incidences of childhood lead poisoning and asthma.

Clark offered a possible avenue of action: a new law, passed in 2008, which requires that, before any facility can be sited in the Phillips neighborhood, cumulative levels of past and current environmental pollution from all sources must be considered. The half-year-old law has already stopped three area projects: the Midtown Eco-Energy burner, an asphalt plant and a Metro Transit paint shed.

Community members hope to petition the PUC to create a community task force to investigate the need for the project and the possibility of alternative energy options and delivery. Meanwhile, the ad hoc group hopes that public pressure, resolutions from area organizations, a petition to the PUC for a citizens’ task force, media coverage and action by local and state governments will influence Xcel’s decisions on the project. Jeff MacPhail, an intern in Lilligren’s office, agreed to be the point person for the ad hoc group.

George Crocker, executive director of the North American Water Office, said that the creation of a citizens’ advisory task force would “provide remarkable leverage,” and he recommended that community members identify other specific avenues of action. “We’re in new and uncharted territory here,” he said.

Jeremy Stratton edits The Bridge newspaper in Southeast Minneapolis.

Correction 1/23: The executive director of the North American Water Office is named George Crocker, not Gary Crocker as this article originally indicated.