Jennifer Gilreath has not experienced blackouts. She lives near the proposed site of Xcel Energy’s Midtown substation on Oakland Avenue South and East 29th Street, which Xcel says would help bring up to 120 megawatts of electricity to South Minneapolis. The company plans to shoot two 115 kilovolt transmission lines through the densely populated Midtown neighborhood to another new substation on Hiawatha Avenue and East 28th Street, near the Greenway.
Xcel says the neighborhood needs the lines to make up for a 55 megawatt deficit the company sees during peak times. But Gilreath isn’t convinced. “I don’t want it there. We don’t need it. I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the neighborhood,” she told Administrative Law Judge Beverly Heydinger at the October 10 public hearing regarding Xcel’s application for a certificate of need for the project.
The hearing was one of the public’s last chances to weigh in on whether the lines are necessary for Midtown. October 26 is the deadline for written testimony. Although 16 people testified, and nearly 50 attended, the need process has not attracted the same level of participation as an earlier round of testimonies. After spending tens of thousands of dollars and countless volunteer hours contesting the line’s planned route, organizations like the Midtown Greenway Coalition and Seward Neighborhood Group say they do not have the resources or the expertise to contest the need for the project.
“Comment period. The record will remain open until 4:30 p.m., Wednesday, October 26, 2011, for interested persons to submit written comments about the need for the proposed project to the Administrative Law Judge. Comments must be submitted directly to Judge Heydinger at:
The Honorable Beverly Jones Heydinger
“The Administrative Law Judge will provide the Commission with a written summary of testimony given at the hearing along with comments received during the prescribed comment period. The Commission will make a final decision on the CN application after receipt of the complete record.”
Running out of resources
Monday’s hearing was the latest in a long line of confrontations between Midtown community members and Xcel Energy over the Hiawatha Project. In 2010, a cadre of community organizations, the city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County contested the company’s application for a route permit after Xcel cited a preference for 75-foot steel structures supporting lines along 29th Street, right above the Greenway.
Last October Judge Heydinger recommended that the lines be placed underground along 28th Street – a victory, to some. The final decision-makers on where and whether the lines go in is the Public Utilities Commission. They are not obligated to follow the judge’s recommendation.
When Xcel announced its plans in 2008, a project of Hiawatha’s size did not require a certificate of need, only a route permit. It was after community members objected that Rep. Karen Clark authored legislation requiring the certificate and allocating $90,000 for a neighborhood energy reduction report exploring alternatives.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed the funding, and organizations like the Midtown Greenway Coalition said resources are too limited to determine whether Xcel needs the lines or not.
“The fact that we didn’t have that funding left us with a great deficit of expertise on this subject,” East Phillips Improvement Coalition president Carol Pass told the judge Monday.
Integrated alternative energy?
Several attendees expressed concern over the contents of an environmental report prepared by the Public Utilities Commission detailing environmental and health consequences of the line and costs of alternatives.
“Could we see an analysis of whether all of these different alternatives combined in some kind of synergy could meet the needs of the neighborhood?” Timothy DenHerder-Thomas asked PUC representatives. The report analyzed the high costs of individual alternatives, such as solar power or conservation, but did not explore a combination of solutions.
Bill Storm, the report’s author, listed zoning regulations and building costs as two barriers to an integrated solution, “The process that we have now is not set up to look at that,” he told hearing attendees.
Storm told the Daily Planet he did not know if a $90,000 neighborhood energy reduction plan could have come up with a cost-effective integrated alternative.
“If we’re not considering that really complicated process of building a solution from the ground up, that seems really lacking to me,” DenHerder-Thomas said.
Who foots the bill?
Several community members questioned how the project would be funded. According to Xcel’s 2009 application, the total cost of the project would be between $28.4 and $41.8 million. Burying the lines underground would cost Xcel more than three times as much as running them overhead. Xcel proposed raising area residents’ energy rates instead of distributing the extra cost among all Midwest customers, especially controversial since the new infrastructure could eventually be used to transmit power elsewhere.
David Bicking described a segment of the book A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the Earth is destroyed to build a freeway. “Even in that book, they didn’t have the gall to propose that the residents of the Earth pay for that hyperspace bypass,” he said.
After the deadline for comment, the judge will have 30 days to submit a report to the PUC. A final hearing will be scheduled in early 2012. The public may or may not have another opportunity to testify then. Whether the rate issue will be addressed at that hearing or a separate one has not been decided.
“We shoulder the burden for the rest of the city all the time,” hearing attendee Aisha Gomez told the Daily Planet. “We don’t need one more thing.”