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Forest County Potawatomi adds to solar capacity as it works towards 100% carbon neutral goal

The solar array on top of the Forest County Potawatomi Community Center.
Forest County Potawatomi Community
The solar array on top of the Forest County Potawatomi Community Center.

On a sunny, blue sky winter day, the solar panels on top of the Forest County Potawatomi Community Center are generating far more energy than the center itself requires.

Those panels are just some of the 1.1 megawatts of solar capacity the tribe has installed since about 2010.

Forest County Potawatomi Community

In the near future, there are plans to add more solar panels to the Carter Casino, the farm wash and pack roof, the fleet roof, and the Wgema campus for a total of 364 kilowatts.

“We want to be in energy independent. We want to have energy sovereignty across the tribal nation,” said Jerry Hauber, the Energy Manger for the Forest County Potawatomi Community.

The Potawatomi’s Milwaukee Casino is the Tribe’s largest consumer of electricity. While there’s little space there to install solar panels, there is space in Forest County.

It’s now a requirement that all new buildings across Forest County Potawatomi are built energy efficient and with roofs that can support solar.

All of this work to get close to the Tribe’s goal of being 100% carbon neutral by 2050.

“It only takes looking at the weather in Wisconsin, just this past year, to understand that climate change is real. It's making a drastic difference in our lives,” said Hauber. “We need to do something about it. The Tribe has looked at that, and the Tribe has the goal of leaving this area, and their land, better now seven generations forward. Seven generations from now is the idea that they will have land and the area is much better off than when we received it now.”

Forest County Potawatomi Community

Some of that solar work includes innovative technologies like agrophotovoltaics. That’s when land is used for solar, but still able to support agriculture, something that’s been a growing concern across the U.S. as the country pushes towards clean energy.

Forest County Potawatomi is considering a project that would install solar panels at 90s degrees rather than at an angle.

The bifacial panels would face east and west.

“As the sun rises in the east, it hits the backside of the solar panel. When it sets in the west, it hits the front side of the solar panel. This is something that we've been working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory based out of Golden, Colorado. They're helping us do some design work and some analytics on that to better understand how that would work,” said Hauber.

The panels would be placed around farm fields and pens like a fence. This helps leave land open for farming, while still producing clean energy.

This set up wouldn’t produce as much electricity as the angled panels do, but it would produce more energy in the morning and evening at the times people are home using electricity.

Energy sustainability specialist Alexander Lange says it would help reduce the need for energy storage.

“That's the real neat thing about this vertical solar idea is it's producing electricity where we have those historic demands,” said Lange. “Those demands are probably only going to go up in the future as people electrify their cars and their homes. You get home, you plug in your car, and now we have more electricity being used.”

Hauber stresses that the energy work extends beyond the tribe into the greater region as well.

Not just in the hopes of a better future, but also right now o sunny days when the solar panels are producing more energy than the Tribal community in Forest County is using, and that excess electricity goes back to the grid to power more homes and businesses in the area.

“We're not just looking at from the perspective of just how much energy we can offset, but we're looking at it of how this can affect the wider community, not only the Tribal community, but the wider community as a whole,” said Hauber.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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