For more than two years, citizens in Plymouth have been fighting a proposal by Xcel Energy to upgrade a high-voltage power line that runs through several residential neighborhoods.
But suddenly, the positions have reversed. Sort of.
Xcel wants to drop the idea, wipe the slate clean and start over to develop a less contentious alternative. But citizen groups are opposed — unless the utility promises not to come back with a similar proposal in the future.
The controversy is playing out in the west metro, where power lines built on farm land in the 1960s and ’70s are now surrounded by energy-hungry homes and businesses.
At issue in Plymouth has been an 8-mile stretch of power line owned by Great River Energy that Xcel wants to acquire and upgrade from 69 kilovolts to 115 kilovolts. The $23.1 million rebuild is called the Hollydale Project.
Xcel wanted to install the higher-capacity power line on 95-foot steel poles along an existing easement, replacing 75-foot wooden poles that have been there since 1971. It would also have constructed a mile of new line to connect to a new electric substation.
Kate McBride, who built her home along the power line route 20 years ago, said the existing line hasn’t been a problem, but building a higher-voltage transmission line “very much changes the equation.” Larger systems are “noisy, they’re aesthetically unpleasing, and they bring safety concerns and concerns about our property values,” she said.
Hundreds turn out for hearings
Several hundred residents have turned out for public hearings to oppose the project. They successfully lobbied their legislators to pass a law in 2013 requiring that state regulators — before approving any transmission line upgrade — must have “clear and convincing evidence” that the utility can’t achieve the same goals by improving distribution lines.
Transmission lines carry electricity from a power plant to substations, where the voltage is transformed so smaller distribution lines operating at lower voltage can carry power to homes and businesses.
Last month, nodding to citizen opposition, Xcel asked the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission for permission to withdraw the Hollydale proposal and start over. Xcel acknowledged that “feedback from our customers in the project area and other key stakeholders” showed that the utility’s preferred route was “very problematic,” and that it was best to begin anew to find a better alternative.
Citizens against the project are skeptical. They suspect that Xcel just wants to repackage the proposal and build a power line somewhere else in the community. Paula Maccabee, an attorney representing citizens in the Western Plymouth Neighborhood Alliance, said people fear that Xcel’s request for a do-over will mean that two years’ of work in compiling expert testimony and public comments against the power line will all need to be repeated.
“The community wants protection to be sure that Xcel does not come back with a different version of the same thing,” she said.
With that in mind, the citizens’ group has asked state regulators to allow Xcel to withdraw its initial plan only if the utility agrees to conditions: that it not propose a power line, and that the public record of citizen opposition be incorporated into any future proposal.
Jim Alders, Xcel’s strategy consultant, said the utility would not object to preserving the public record if it’s useful. “When everything’s said and done, we need to work with communities we serve to try and develop consensus,” he said.
But Alders said placing conditions on what the utility can or cannot propose in the future amounts to prejudging the outcomes, and a better approach would be to have all options on the table for discussion.
Alders said there remains a need for a stronger system in the west metro, because the lines were built four or five decades ago and the number of customers is outgrowing the utility’s capacity to provide reliable service.
“Conceivably you could keep adding and redesigning the distribution system to accommodate need,” he said. “But sooner or later you’re going to have to build something that provides a stronger source of power into the area.”
Xcel has advanced other transmission line proposals in the west metro, including an 11.4-mile stretch of new and upgraded line between eastern Carver and northern Scott counties that goes through downtown Chaska.
State to decide
Before Xcel can start over to come up with a different proposal in Plymouth, the utility needs state approval to withdraw its first project. The touchy question of whether to attach conditions to any new plan is now before the state Public Utilities Commission, with a public comment period deadline of Jan. 29.
The commission is unlikely to decide the matter until spring, and Alders said it’s not clear how long after that it will take for Xcel to come up with an alternate project.
For McBride, any proposal that contains a new or upgraded power line will not be acceptable.
“There is no immediate need for a high-voltage transmission line,” she said. “Maybe that day will never come because of new technology or new efforts at conservation. There’s no need to destroy the value and enjoyment of people’s homes.”