Daily Digest: A Tribe in Northern Wisconsin Turns Food Waste to Energy 

The Tribe’s renewable energy generation ensures economic stability today and for future Tribal members. (FCPC)

For the Forest County Potawatomi Community (FCPC), protecting Mother Earth and caring for its citizens are the Tribe’s highest priorities. Because of the Tribe’s commitment, it diversifies its businesses beyond gaming by incorporating green energy generation and usage across all FCPC buildings and enterprises.

“It’s part of the big picture plan for the Tribe to have a positive impact on the environment,” said FCPC Attorney General Jeff Crawford. “One of the things we wanted to do was reduce our carbon footprint, so we evaluated what kind of damage we were doing to the environment through our energy use.”

As a FCPC Tribal member, Crawford grew up on the northern Wisconsin reservation. Upon graduating law school, he worked in the private sector and returned as an employee of the Tribe in 1997. He has served as the FCPC attorney general since 1999.

In the early 2000s, FCPC leaders, including Crawford, reached out to Tribal elders to gain a better understanding of the changing climate’s impact on the plants and animals that have sustained the Potawatomi people for generations. The elders explained the roots, plants and medicines they gathered were not as potent as they were in the past and that animal patterns were changing, Crawford said.

The Tribe began to study the world around them and ways in which they could propel the community forward while also ensuring natural resources for generations to come.  

 “We independently were able to scientifically look … and say ‘yes, there is, from our perspective, global warming. There is mercury in the air, water, plants and animals,’” Crawford said. 

The Forest County Potawatomi Community’s biodigester facility diverts millions of gallons of waste from going back into the earth and transforms it into electricity. (FCPC)

The conversations and findings inspired FCPC to develop an environmental mission statement that highlights its dedication to preserve Potawatomi traditional values by respecting all living things, protecting the air water and soil for future generations while employing efforts to remedy the negative impacts of others.   

“It’s also part of that mission to look external[ly] to see how we can affect policy in the United States and to see how we can impact others by demonstrating that … you can have a strong economy and still protect the environment,” he explained. 

Motivated by the Tribe’s renewed dedication, FCPC leadership looked for opportunities to mitigate its dependence on non-environmentally friendly energy.

“We made ourselves more efficient wherever we could, but in the end, we were still using energy that was coming from coal-fired plants. And so for the Tribe to continue on its mission to reduce our adverse environmental impacts, we’re going to have to produce our own green energy.”  

Charged with this knowledge, FCPC began looking at building and developing a power plant, but to accomplish this, they had to find a feasible source to generate electricity. 

“Whenever you want to open up any kind of power plant, you need to have a feedstock or a natural resource that’s close enough that it’s not going to cost you a lot of money to transport that resource to your energy plant,” Crawford said. “One of the abundant resources in the Milwaukee area, as in every major in this country, is waste that’s going to dumps or down drains.”

Research determined food waste from across the Milwaukee metropolitan was the most advantageous option for the Tribe. In 2013, FCPC implemented a $20 million biodigester facility located near the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that converts the discarded material into electricity.  

Forest County Potawatomi Community Attorney General Jeff Crawford leads the Tribe’s green energy efforts. (FCPC)

How it works 

FCPC’s biodigester utilizes anaerobic digestion, which is the process a human body undergoes in the stomach during digestion, to break down the food waste collected from around the city. 

As trucks arrive, the facility pumps the contents in two 1.3 million gallon tanks that contain a balance of both good and bad bacteria. 

“The bacteria in the tanks are essentially eating the carbon in the organic material,” Crawford explained. 

This breakdown creates gases, mostly nitrogen, which is then cleaned, burned and transformed into electricity. 

“We also capture the waste heat from generating that energy into our nearby casino, which is then used to offset the heating costs,” Crawford said. 

The facility annually diverts approximately 12 million gallons of feedstock from going into landfills and converts it into 2.0 MW of clean energy. The electricity produced can power around 1,500 homes. 

While the energy produced by the biodigester is not enough to meet the Tribe’s demands, all of its enterprises and buildings run on 100 percent green power from wind farms across the region. 

“Until we get to the point where we are producing all of our green energy equivalent to or as much as we use, we are purchasing renewable energy credits on the open market,” he said. 

The biodigester servers as an economic opportunity and lessens the Tribe’s carbon footprint. (FCPC)

Additional green initiatives 

The Tribe installed solar panels on 15 Tribal buildings located on their Forest County, Wisconsin, reservation in 2015. The power generated from the panels creates enough energy for 750 homes and offsets energy demands by 20 to 90 percent. 

“We’ve figured out how to make solar work in an [economical] way, so I’m pretty sure that means that almost any Tribe or any other governmental entity can make it work and make sense,” he said. 

The FCPC strives to serve as a beacon for complete energy independence across Indian Country. 

“If every Tribe became energy self-sufficient and the lights went out, there would be 500 points of light throughout North America, because the Tribes will be energy sufficient,” Crawford said. “But that’s not enough. It’s like being a role model to other governmental entities or businesses is part of it.”

FCPC also implemented a four-day work week, which has decreased overhead and carbon footprint across the Tribe. In fact, its efforts divert more than 14,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. That equates to the emissions from more than approximately 2,000 passenger vehicles or enough electrical usage for nearly 1,500 homes for one year. 

Since the Tribe began utilizing eco-friendly practices like the biodigester and solar panels, the Environmental Protection Agency recognized the FCPC as one of the 100 largest green power users in the United States, and the Tribe received acknowledgment as the 11th largest green power user in the nation among local government partners within the Green Power Partnership. 

Beyond its innovative efforts, the FCPC advocates for Tribal sovereignty through actively monitoring legislation and regulation on the local, state and federal levels.

“We want to be able to make our own rules and laws that govern ourselves, but we also want to be independent and produce our own food. We want to be independent and produce our own energy. And so, it clearly a reflection of the Tribe and the Tribe’s sovereignty and it’s reflected in many ways including energy self-sufficiency,” Crawford said. 

Tribally-owned businesses, like the biodigester facility, serve as a way to provide the FCPC financial stability now and for generations to come. 

“We want to have a diversified economy so that we’re growing and diversifying our businesses beyond gaming,” Crawford said. “At the same time, we’re using more energy. We’re using it more efficiently, but we’re still using more energy. So that means then we have to be creative and look for other opportunities to produce more green energy as we go forward.”