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Forest County Potawatomi Renewables Program Nets EPA Top 30 Nod

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They squelched a mine, established air-quality monitoring and built a solar plant. Where does a tribe go from there?

For the Forest County Potawatomi Community it meant going deeper. The tribe has translated traditional values into a program that uses cutting-edge technologies and sophisticated environmental principles to preserve clean land, water and air for future generations. The Forest Potawatomi derives more than 55 million kilowatt-hours of power annually from renewables, supplying 105 percent of its energy needs.

In so doing, it has caught the eye of the federal government. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently listed the Potawatomi among its Top 30 Local Governments and Top 100 Green Power users in the federal Green Power Partnership.

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The tribe has a long-standing commitment to environmental protection both for its own members and the world. In 2003, the Forest County Potawatomi and Sokaogan Chippewa communities ended a 20-year battle to keep Exxon’s proposed copper/zinc mine proposed five miles southwest of the reservation from opening by purchasing the Crandon Mine site. In 1999, the tribe established an air quality monitoring program to convince the EPA to re-designate the air over the 17,000-acre reservation from Class II to Class I as part of the effort to stop the mine. The air quality monitoring program, now housed in its own building, continues to protect the natural environment of the reservation and the region.

Once they had halted the mine and initiated the air quality program, the Potawatomi started examining what else was possible.

“The tribe turned to ourselves and asked what more could we do. We listened to the elders. If there was some negative impact on the environment we had to look to our own environmental practices and our own energy uses,” said FCPC Attorney and tribal member General Jeff Crawford, adding that as a result, “the tribe has institutionalized a tradition of beliefs and we are focusing on energy reduction and carbon reduction.”

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Efforts included both power generation and energy efficiency programs, said Tansie Smith, Paiute Shoshone/Navajo, the sustainability coordinator for the tribe. The tribe has cut more than 14,400 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually since 2007, she said.

The Forest County Potawatomi Community currently boasts a two-megawatt biodigester at one of its casinos and solar panels on an administration building, but the tribe reaches its goal of getting all of its power from green sources primarily by buying renewable energy credits on the open market.

“Our goal is to offset all of our electricity use,” said Crawford. “The tribe has a long-term plan to get off the grid. It’s not technically possible yet to produce all of our own power, so we buy it.”

The tribe is reviewing its energy projects carefully before deciding what to do next.

“Even though we have some solar we’re looking at adding additional solar and we’re looking at biomass and taking another look at wind,” Crawford said. “We looked at solar four or five years ago, and we’re looking at it again because we want to make sure we have accurate information for today’s market because solar panel prices have gone down so much.”

Crawford said that other tribes could do what the Potawatomi have done by looking hard at their own governmental operations, take stock of precisely how much energy they use and what impact it has on the environment. That lays down a benchmark against which future success can be measured.

“Once you have the benchmark established and you want to produce your own green energy you have to take a look at the environment around you,” Crawford said by way of example. “So if you’re in a woody environment you take a look at biomass, and if you’re in an area with great sun you take a look at solar. What works for one tribe will not work for them all. You need to take a look at what is available.”

Lastly, Crawford said, the key is to have the support of people who will be directly affected by any changes.

“It’s important to have the buy-in of the people who work in the areas where the program will be implemented,” he said.