Xcel next in line to target Phillips

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Xcel Energy plans to build two substations in South Minneapolis, connecting them with high power transmission lines. Xcel says the new substations are essential to meet increased demand for electricity in the community and to replace an outdated distribution system. Residents in the Phillips neighborhood and advocates for the Midway Greenway want more answers before Xcel gets a green light from regulators. Among their questions:
• Are there alternatives to “huge, ugly” towers?
• How would the substations impact Little Earth’s new home ownership initiative?
• If transmission lines run above the Greenway, how would that affect future transit development?
• Do EMF emissions pose health risks?
• Have all options for conservation and alternative energy been explored?

During Thanksgiving week, the Midtown Greenway Coalition will hold a meeting with Xcel engineers and representatives from the most impacted neighborhoods to learn more about the electricity needs that the Hiawatha Project will address. For more information, call the coalition office at 612-879-0103.

Xcel Energy has proposed to construct two substations, connected by one and a quarter miles of high power lines in South Minneapolis. Officially named the Hiawatha Project, it is the company’s response to increased population growth and economic development experienced by business and residential communities along major thoroughfares like Lake Street, home of the Midtown Global Market; Chicago Avenue, where Abbott Northwestern and Children’s Hospital reside; and Hiawatha Avenue, along the lightrail line. The project is expected to provide “necessary transmission and distribution capacity…reduce exposure to outage-causing hazards, and reduce service restoration time,” as explained in the company’s project summary.

The current distribution system, designed and installed more than fifty years ago, has been deemed insufficient to meet projected demand for the area. According to Xcel, “Without these improvements, South Minneapolis could begin experiencing service disruptions as soon as 2010.” The new system is expected to provide reliable electricity through the next 20 years.

The boundaries of the impact area for construction are Interstate 35W, East 31st Street, East 26th Street, and 26th Avenue South. That area includes parts of the following neighborhoods: Phillips West, Midtown Phillips, East Phillips, Seward, Longfellow, Corcoran, Powderhorn Park, and Central. Although construction would be concentrated in Phillips, the new substations would have the capacity to meet energy demands as far north as Interstate 94 to the north, south to Interstate 494, Highway 169 on the West and Hiawatha Avenue to the East.

The Phillips neighborhood has fought its share of infrastructure and development battles, most recently with Kandiyohi Development Partners’ proposal of a biomass plant in the area. Carol Pass, President of the East Phillips Improvement Coalition (EPIC) says she’s not necessarily opposed to the project, but she is cautious.

“We have to be vigilant with regard to the neighborhood,” says Pass. “I mean look at what we’ve been through…we’ve always had to stand alone while people from elsewhere with more resources come in with various projects for us.”

EPIC recently passed a motion outlining several demands from Xcel before an application is submitted to the Public Utilities Commission.

“We insist that there be a longer amount of time before making a final decision so we can research this further,” says Pass. “We’re absolutely against the consideration of 26th Street…explore the underground option…and someone should share the cost.”

“Residents are most concerned about visibility…the look of it,” said Xcel spokesperson Patti Nystuen. This brings up the question of overhead or underground equipment. The price of overhead power lines and substations would be approximately $2 million compared to an $18 million price tag for underground construction.

“These huge towers are ugly. They take away the appeal of the neighborhood,” said Pass. Xcel says they are considering some combination of both, but projects the final investment amount at $15 million.

The design of the Hiawatha Project proposes one substation near the Hiawatha corridor and the other in the Midtown corridor. But community members have problems with both locations. The Midtown Greenway seems to be a likely target for raising high power lines in a densely populated area.

Tim Springer, executive director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition says it may have a “negative impact on the potential for the Midtown Greenway to serve a spine for future transit oriented (and bikeway oriented) development.

“Some brainstorms shared so far include investment in some of the infrastructure needed for our hoped-for Midtown Greenway streetcar line that will run alongside the trails and the creation of a public walkway along portions of the street-level Greenway rim,” he explained.

From a different perspective, Pass is concerned about the potential use of East 26th Street. “Little Earth has just launched their home ownership initiative, which would expand their boundaries west to East 26th Street. They’re expanding in a very bad area, which they plan to restore…no, not 26th,” urged Pass.

Perhaps the biggest concern is the emission of electro-magnetic fields, which also adds to Pass’s concern for the project’s location. EMF exposure also brings concerns for a potential health risk.

“Research is inconclusive regarding whether living in magnetic fields causes childhood leukemia,” said Springer.

“If [the substations] are buried, the EMFs dissipate much faster, making [the new equipment] more effective, but then it may be harder to fix and harder to find bad spots,” said Pass.

Xcel Project Manager Betty Mirzayi argues that most people are exposed to EMFs right inside of their homes due to the increased use of electronics, computers, microwaves, and machines that use electricity. “We will monitor the output for safety according to the latest studies,” she said.

And who will pay for the project? Community members are concerned about having to foot the bill, especially if it doesn’t meet the desires of the community.

“I challenge someone at Xcel to take on the additional cost…don’t do this to the neighborhood…be a moral hero and make a financial sacrifice,” said Pass. Residents fear they may have to assume extra costs if the more desirable underground plan is implemented.

There is a popular notion in the community that Xcel Energy is trying to make a profit.

“They are essentially building a power sale site,” said community organizer and Seward resident Mark Sulander. “They need the new equipment to sell power.”

Xcel says that on the contrary the community will benefit through annual property tax revenues.

Sulander suggests there should be an adequate assessment of the existing equipment. “There is outdated equipment at Midtown and the hospital, but they should fix that first, and then find the need,” he said.

Finding the need is part of the state’s regulatory process. A certificate of need and a route permit are required by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) before a transmission line can be built. The certificate of need proceeding determines whether the project may be necessary as well as the suitable size, design and time frame for the project. Through the Routing Permit the MPUC determines the route and design of the line.

Xcel says there are also environmental benefits to their proposal: “Having a more efficient electric system with lower line losses will reduce the carbon footprint generated by electricity use in the city of Minneapolis.”

“We don’t know enough about this not to have some fears,” says Pass. “We do worry that we’re part of an energy highway that will make a profit. There seems to be a conflict of interest. The very people expressing a need are the very ones that will make a profit.”

What about alternatives to implementing this project? Community members have highlighted options like conservation or even the company’s power distribution efficiency program, Smart Grid.

Xcel says energy conservation is not enough. “Nearly half of all eligible residential customers in South Minneapolis are participating in our Saver’s Switch conservation program. However, [this] won’t sufficiently offset project demand or eliminate existing deficiencies,” according to the company’s printed materials.

Other alternatives suggested by community leaders include local power generation through solar heat and electricity as well as evaluating the demand curve for load shifting potential.

Mirzayi says Xcel welcomes participation and feedback from the community. “We are required to notify the impacted area of outreach efforts including activities and events. More open houses will be scheduled in December before the [MPUC] application is submitted,” she said.

Xcel plans to submit its permit application in January 2009. They project construction to begin in October 2009 pending regulatory review and approval, with a service start date by June 2010.

“We remain concerned,” said Springer. “It seems unlikely that this time-frame will allow for a full community understanding of the electricity needs to be met and to work with Xcel on alternative strategies prior to a permit application submission.” Others have heard that Xcel has been talking to the City of Minneapolis to speed up the permit process.

“If it is determined to the community’s satisfaction that the electricity needs of the area cannot be addressed through conservation and local distributed generation and the substations and transmission line must be built, then there are likely to be mitigation measures,” said Springer. “Until we learn more about the electricity needs that the project will address we don’t have an opinion about whether the project is justified based on local demands.”

“We just want to keep the lights on here,” said Patti Nystuen of Xcel Energy. “We’re doing it here because it would benefit the community. These are the people who need it.”

Lauretta Dawolo Towns is a freelancer for several local community and ethnic news outlets. She is also a mentor in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program and a consultant with the Girls in Action program at Patrick Henry High School. Towns is a resident of the McKinley neighborhood in North Minneapolis where she lives with her husband and newborn son.