County Attorney's efforts force Xcel to bury power lines in Minneapolis

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

A January decision by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission ordering Xcel Energy to bury a proposed 115-kilovolt transmission line, rather than run it overhead along the Midtown Greenway, was a victory for Minneapolis residents, businesses and the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.

The commission also ordered Xcel to file a rate case before Feb. 12 indicating whether the added costs of burying the line will be paid for by all of Xcel’s customers or only by its Minneapolis customers.

Because of the ruling, the line will run underground on 28th Street between Hiawatha and Oakland Avenues South. The electric company had proposed putting up power poles and running the line along the Midtown Greenway or other nearby routes.

The case began when Xcel filed a route permit application for the project in April 2009. The application also called for building two substations in Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhoods. The company submitted plans for five possible routes, two underground and three overhead power lines. The length of the lines varied between 1.4 miles and 3.2 miles and the poles would have been between 75 and 115 feet in height.

The project was unique because of its setting in a densely populated urban environment with residential, commercial, industrial, transportation and recreational uses. The area also has historical bridges, buildings and other structures. In its filings, Xcel acknowledged it had never built an overhead line in such a densely populated area.

Hennepin County objected to the overhead transmission lines primarily because of the $20 million it spent to develop the Midtown Greenway, a beautiful bike path that has become one of the most popular trails in the country. Hennepin County, the City of Minneapolis and the Midtown Greenway Coalition filed to become parties in the proceeding. The case was heard by Administrative Law Judge Beverly Heydinger in April 2010.

During the three-week trial, the county attorney's office, as well as the other parties, presented testimony of the substantial impact overhead transmission lines and utility poles would have on future planned transportation along the Midtown Greenway, on recreation along the Greenway bike path, on residential and commercial development and on historical resources such as the Greenway bridges, embankments and buildings such as the American Swedish Institute.

They also introduced evidence of the greater reliability of underground power lines and demonstrated that while the additional electricity would benefit many people outside the project area, the construction of overhead lines would burden just the Phillips neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods are ethnically diverse, poorer and home to superfund sites and high levels of lead poisoning and asthma in children.

In October 2010, Judge Heydinger issued her order recommending that the Public Utilities Commission issue a route permit and sided with Hennepin County and the others by ruling it should be the route under 28th Street.

During all of this, a new law was passed requiring Xcel to obtain a certificate of need for the line because a high-voltage transmission line in south Minneapolis has a much greater public impact than does a similar line in a rural area. Those proceedings wrapped up in October, but the routing hearing was postponed until early January.

Following two days of hearings, the commission ruled Jan. 12 against Xcel by agreeing with Judge Heydinger’s recommendation. The additional cost of burying the line is about $13.6 million. By ordering the electric company to file a rate case, Hennepin County and the others will be able to argue in the coming months that all of the customers in Xcel’s five-state area should pay for the project, rather than just Minneapolis customers.

Mr.Salter, who wrote this piece, is an attorney with the Hennepin County Attorneys Office’s Civil Division and represented Hennepin County in the above proceedings.