The lights flickered and Sharon Hannigan's computerized cash register shut down. The grocery store she manages at the Midtown Exchange on Lake Street came face to face on a recent Saturday with Xcel Energy's sporadic problems getting reliable electrical service to parts of south Minneapolis. Rather than pay a hefty help-desk charge to get her credit card equipment restarted, the Produce Exchange went cash-only for the rest of the weekend.

Nearby, Abbott Northwestern Hospital experienced 16 unplanned outages last year, compared to six in 2002. During an outage, it shifts quickly to back-up generators,

"We have seen a trend over the last five or six years of increased reliability issues," said Tim Grote, who manages hospital facilities. "It is important, especially in health care."

Such stories emerged last week when Xcel hosted its first open houses about its plans to build high-voltage power lines in south Minneapolis. About 60 area residents and business people came, many to quiz the utility about its plans or to express concern, mainly about the aesthetics or health impacts of the lines. Two more sessions on the Hiawatha Project are scheduled for today.

Xcel wants to branch twin 115-kilovolt transmission lines into the Lake Street corridor, starting at Hiawatha Avenue and reaching almost to Interstate 35W. It also plans new substations at either end.

Company officials say that brownouts and interruptions like those reported by Grote and Hannigan are increasing for customers near the end of its current distribution system. It said that adding the new lines will increase reliability.

But the project, which Xcel intends to complete in 2010, also is arousing opposition. Some of it stems from the same coalition of neighborhood activists who successfully opposed a biomass plant in the Hiawatha-Lake area earlier this year. Their leaflet suggests that Xcel could obviate the need for the proposed high-voltage line with facility and conservation improvements, a claim the company disputes.

Some of the opposition arises from those concerned about the aesthetics of having a high-voltage line for a neighbor. Although Xcel has said that it's looking anywhere in a five-block swatch paralleling Lake for a route, a number of opponents fear that the line could run in or near the Midtown Greenway.

"We as residents can't tell you how upset we are," said Darlene Moen, who bought a new condo overlooking the bike and pedestrian greenway. "A lot of people here don't know how to fight back."

Xcel said that it wouldn't seek to install its transmission towers of up to 70 feet tall in the greenway itself, but might consider using the south lip overlooking the recreational trench. It is also looking at whether the lines could be meshed with a rebuilding of E. 26th St.

Some residents favor burying the lines, which is technically feasible but would raise the cost of the lines by ninefold, according to Xcel's rough estimate. That cost would be paid by area customers.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

POWER LINE OPEN HOUSES

Xcel Energy will hold two more open houses today at which south Minneapolis residents and businesses can learn more about its proposal to build a high-voltage power line and two substations in the Lake Street area:

When: Noon to 2 p.m. and 5-7 p.m. today

Where: Midtown Exchange (former Lake Street Sears building) Global Market basement level.