Facing growing power demands from its urban customers, Xcel Energy Inc. announced plans to build two new substations and transmission lines in south Minneapolis, its first new transmission corridor in the city in more than 20 years.

The $15 million Hiawatha Project is intended to accommodate greater commercial loads in the revitalized Lake Street area, as well as swelling residential usage -- for everything from air conditioners to hair dryers to home computers -- across south Minneapolis neighborhoods, Xcel Regional Vice President Judy Poferl said.

The electric utility also called the project a potential model for future urban projects, because it will collect public comment early in the process as it designs and finds locations for the new structures. "The need is driven by this area's success, and that's good news, but we do recognize that our facilities have an impact on communities," Poferl said.

Xcel's proposal calls for a new substation somewhere near Hiawatha Avenue and another in the Midtown area, with two, 115-kilovolt lines running the 1.25-mile length between them, adding enough electricity to power the equivalent of 7,500 homes. The expanded system is expected to cover energy demands for the next 20 years for an area roughly bounded by Interstate 94 on the north, Interstate 494 on the south, Hwy. 169 on the west and Hiawatha Avenue on the east.

The utility plans meetings with city officials and neighborhood associations, as well as four public meetings starting next month, project managers said. Input from all those will help determine specific sites for what are now broadly delineated locations for the new structures. Xcel intends to submit project applications in January -- state law gives the option of going to the City Council or the state Public Utilities Commission -- and to complete construction in 2010.

The demand curve

At $15 million, this urban infrastructure project pales in comparison to the massive, $1.7 billion proposal by Xcel and 10 other utilities to build 700 miles of high-voltage lines across Minnesota. But such city work is increasingly common in major American metropolitan areas, as the final link in reliable power delivery, industry groups said.

"Some inner cities are experiencing growth, as people move back in because their kids are grown, or high gasoline prices cause them to reevaluate the city as a place to live," said Jim Owen, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, the Washington-based association of shareholder-owned utilities.

Development has come fast to the Lake Street area, including conversion of the old Sears Tower complex to Allina Hospitals & Clinics headquarters and the Midtown Global Market. The area sports a new hotel and condo and apartment buildings the length of the street.

Xcel offers energy-conservation assistance to its commercial customers, "but with this kind of development, usage still takes a big bump," Poferl said. "With those programs we are curbing the rate of growth. We are not reducing use."

Xcel could get an earful when city officials and community groups start their feedback.

City Council Member Robert Lilligren, whose ward could see the new transmission lines, said he believes the early talks present a chance to leverage benefits for his constituents from Xcel.

Another area council member, Gary Schiff, said he was aware of plans for a new substation, but not the transmission line.

"That would be a significant impact on the community," he said. Public complaints often focus on aesthetics and concern of possible current-related health problems.

Tim Springer, staff director for the Midtown Greenway Coalition advocacy group, said he suspects his board's concerns will revolve around potential health impacts on users of the bike-hike paths that run through the area, and on adjacent residents.

H.J. Cummins • 612-673-4671 Star Tribune staff writer Steve Brandt contributed to this report.