Biomass Appeal: Inside the Forest County Potawatomi’s Biogas Plants

Next to the Forest County Potawatomi Community’s (FCPC) Menomonee Valley Casino, you’ll find an $18.5 million biogas energy plant that’s not only providing heat to the casino, but it’s also selling the electricity back to the local utility company. What was formerly a parking lot for casino employees is now saving the Tribe money and creating revenue, all while generating two megawatts of electricity from liquid food waste—typically enough power to supply about 1,500 homes.

Biogas is a source of sustainable energy that is produced during the breakdown of raw organic materials like waste, plant material, or food scraps. Using anaerobic digestion, organisms digest or ferment materials which, as a byproduct, creates a methane-based gas that can be burned and used for any heating purpose. When combusted in a gas engine, biogas can be used to create heat and electricity.

For the FCPC, it’s a win-win-win. About 25 percent of the plant’s revenue comes from taking waste from the local food industries, with the other three quarters coming from energy sales.

“One of the things that people in Appalachia learned was that if you can take corn and convert it into higher value goods, like whiskey, you can get more money per pound than if you sold it as a straight agricultural product,” Charlie Opferman, who runs the FCPC biodigester plant, told Native Business Magazine™. “Milwaukee was built at the confluence of three rivers with a big natural harbor. Food industries developed in the region to turn dairy into cheese, grain into beer, and meat into sausage for shipment back east. These industries have waste streams that were previously being poured into the sewers or dumped into landfills, but now are feedstocks for our plant.”

In addition to the revenue potential, the positive environmental impact of biogas plants like the Potawatomi’s are vast. By converting waste to usable biogas in a closed environment where it can be captured and used, it is prevented from entering the atmosphere, where methane is more than 100 times more potent at trapping energy than carbon dioxide. By using a sustainable fuel source, the Tribe also reduces the overall amount of fossil fuel usage.

The Tribe sells all two megawatts of generated power to the local utility company, We Energies, which provides electrical service to areas of Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Tribe then buys the power they need back from the utility at a lower rate than they sell it for. In addition to the revenue from energy sales, Opferman said that the Potawatomi have also established systems to use excess heat from the process to heat the water for their hotel.

The Forest County Potawatomi’s biomass plant opened in 2013. Each year, a total of 16 million gallons of food waste is digested in two 1.3-million-gallon digester tanks. According to a 2013 article covering the planned project, some of the wastes that go into the plant include bakery waste from making cookies, cheese plant waste, and waste from production of soy. Food waste from the casino and food waste from the local grocery stores are also a major food source. The resulting biogas is burned in two generators, each of which can produce one megawatt of electricity.

The project came about as the result of Tribal sustainability initiatives and grant funding that made the dream into a reality.

In 2007, the Forest County Potawatomi created Project Greenfire, which established the goal of energy independence using only renewable carbon-neutral or carbon-free resources. This was followed in 2008 by the adoption of the Environmental Mission Statement to help implement and institutionalize the goal. To begin the process of converting to energy independence, the FCPC undertook a comprehensive energy audit that established the baseline of their energy consumption and carbon footprint. To completely offset their electricity use and serve as a bridge to energy independence, the Tribe purchased Renewable Energy Credits.

In 2010, the Tribe received a Community Renewable Energy Grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). After exploring other sources including solar, wind, and biomass, the FCPC determined that they could reap the best return from biogas. Since ARRA funds couldn’t be used explicitly for the casino, they found a willing buyer in the local energy utility, that had previously been unable to meet their renewable energy portfolio standards imposed from the Wisconsin Public Utility Commission. Thus, the utility created an experimental tariff to buy energy from biogas plants in two megawatt packages, the program that the FCPC biodigester participated in.

After the Tribe received the DOE grant, they assembled a finance strategy, established an LLC for the plant, and decided for the first time in the Tribe’s history to establish a taxable entity, which allowed them to compete for Section 1603 grants in lieu of a tax credit from the ARRA. Under this program, the Tribe received financing of $5.162 million, which was combined with the $3.4 million DOE grant and $200,000 in grant funding from the local utility.

Opferman said that one of the biggest challenges to running a successful biogas plant is maintaining the delicate biological processes and keeping the ecosystem needed to generate gas running smoothly.

“You have to take good care of your bugs,” he said, referring to the anaerobic bacteria that digest the waste and produce methane.

Since the biogas plant started operations, the Tribe has also built 985 kilowatts’ worth of solar arrays and is exploring the possibilities presented by urban and rural biomass. But according to Opferman, one of the long-term goals he hopes to achieve is funding a Compressed Natural Gas station that can be used to convert the FCPC’s fleet of vehicles to run on gas produced by the biodigester.

“We’re still interested in diversifying our energy portfolio,” he said. “We would ultimately like to get to producing transportation fuel, which will help our goal of becoming energy sovereign on the transportation side as well.”