Calhoun County

FireKeepers thinking seven generations ahead in major renewable energy move

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.

FireKeepers Casino Hotel is poised to take the equivalent of about 61,000 gasoline-powered passenger vehicles off the road when 100 percent of its electricity is supplied through renewable power sources, says Jim Wise, Vice President of Marketing and Online Sports and Gaming for the hotel and casino.
While it’s true that FireKeepers is the first Tribal-owned and operated casino hotel in Michigan to form this partnership with Consumers Energy through its Renewable Energy Program, Wise says it was never about being first. It is instead a way for the hotel to honor the culture and history of its owners, the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi.
Jim Wise, Vice President of Marketing and Online Sports and Gaming for the hotel and casino“The Tribe is always seeking to look ahead to seven generations into the future as they plan for things,” Wise says. “When you talk about things like financial prudence and building things for the future, it’s done through the lens of planning for the next seven generations. Equally important, is their love of Mother Earth which is exhibited by our ability to take vast amounts of energy needed from 100 percent renewable sources.”
This commitment to looking seven generations ahead when planning comes through the Seventh Generation Principle, an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois)* philosophy that the decisions “we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future, according to the Indigenous Corporate Training, Inc. website.
“The principle provides a framework that can be used as a tool to think through both the visible and potentially unseen complexities of an issue,” says Jayla Rousseau-Thomas an Anishinaabe woman, living on the traditional territories of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation and Ta’an Kwachan Council in Whitehorse, Yukon.
In an article she wrote for Generation Squeeze, she writes, “It can provide a structure for considering how to best address current challenges by integrating past practices, values and priorities, and how to make the best-informed decisions for what needs may be many generations into the future.” 
Brian Wheeler, Consumers Energy SpokespersonFireKeepers is among a growing number of larger Consumers Energy commercial customers who have signed on to participate in its Renewable Energy Program. This list includes General Motors, Comcast, the State of Michigan, Interlochen Center for the Arts, and 7-11 stores, says Brian Wheeler, Consumers Energy spokesperson.
With an anticipated twofold increase in demand for renewable energy sources, the utility company recently made a regulatory filing with the state laying out plans focused on how it will manage this growth.
“When you think of these larger publicly-traded companies, they joined the program because they have certain environmental, social. and governance mandates and they’re trying to meet those sustainability objectives by enrolling in the program,” says Eric Clinton, Director of Renewable Products for Consumers Energy.
Additionally, he says, larger economic development projects looking to locate in Michigan are requiring access to 100 percent clean energy.
The utility provider’s Renewable Energy Program was born out of Energy legislation in  2016 that required electricity providers to offer all customers the option to purchase renewable energy on a voluntary basis, he says.
That same year, solar panels were installed on property fronting I-94 which is part of the hotel/casino complex. Those panels were installed by Skasge Power Company, a subsidiary of Grand Rapids-based Waseyabek Development Company (WDC). WDC is a 100% Tribal-owned holding company that manages the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi’s non-gaming economic development activities.
Wise says “Those very well-recognized solar panels were out there for more than a decade. They were removed because they were out of life.” He says the move towards more renewable energy sources will maintain the progressive stance FireKeepers leadership continues to take with its hotel and other facilities.
Frank Tecumseh, CEO at FireKeepers“Joining this partnership is just one of the many ways FireKeepers is making significant strides towards a greener future, fostering an environmentally friendly approach to business operations,” says Frank Tecumseh, CEO at FireKeepers, in a press release. “By embracing the latest in sustainable technology, FireKeepers is leaving behind our older solar panels and stepping into the future of sustainability.”
As a result of the Energy legislation, 15 percent of the energy sources within Consumers Energy’s generation portfolio must be renewable. These sources include the more visible solar panels and wind turbines and less visible — hydroelectricity and geothermal.
“We refer to it as our generation portfolio mix which would include renewables, pumped storage hydro, natural gas plants, and coal facilities up until 2025. Wheeler says the coal facility will be retired by 2025. By 2040, he says Consumers Energy will have a carbon-neutral power grid.

Traditional energy sources like coal and gas produce carbon dioxide among other gasses when they are burned to fuel power stations, according to information on the National Grid ESO website.

“Zero carbon means that no carbon emissions are being produced from a product or service (for example, a wind farm generating electricity, or a battery deploying electricity).”

Among Michigan’s 10 million-plus residents, there is an appetite for establishing a carbon-neutral grid. In a poll conducted in April by Data for Progress, 61 percent of survey respondents were in favor of the transition to a 100 percent clean energy electricity grid.

“Furthermore, a substantial 73% of Michiganders express their support for an increased share of electricity derived from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar,” the survey concluded.
Clinton says, “FireKeepers’ dedication to the Renewable Energy Program aligns perfectly with these public sentiments and bolsters Michigan's progress toward a greener, more sustainable future.”
A financial commitment to go clean and green
Those customers participating in the Renewable Energy Program pay for the build-out of the wind and solar facilities to meet their particular needs. Consumers Energy contracts with third-party developers on these projects and oversees them from start to completion, Wheeler says.
Upon the commissioning and start-up of the facility, ownership is transferred to Consumers Energy. These resources are connected to the larger electric grid which generates electricity for all Consumers Energy customers.
“The customer works with us. We do the work to develop the project. They’re paying a premium on top of their regular bill to absorb the cost of the project,” Wheeler says. “They’ll get a credit on their bill based on the amount of energy generated by the facility. Customers are expecting to pay out more than they receive in return.”
However, a customer can break even or make some money back, Clinton says.
“It really depends on the value and price of energy in the marketplace in the future. They could receive a net bill reduction or a premium that could be more than their total electricity bill. If market prices rise in the future, they would benefit financially from enrolling in the program,” he says. “A lot of our larger customers look at this program not only for the environmental benefits but also as a way to hedge energy prices in the future.”
“When the turbines turn and the solar panels produce, that’s the magic and customers receive a percentage from the energy generated,” Wheeler says.
An example of Consumer Energy's Solar Gardens at Western Michigan University.“The program that FireKeepers joined allows our largest commercial and industrial customers who are high users of electricity to match their consumption with renewable energy,” Clinton says. “It is a subscription-based program no different than Netflix or Amazon. They pay a subscription rate and they receive the environmental benefits of renewable energy and financial credits towards that subscription equivalent to the value of that electricity in the marketplace.”
Wise says he expects the build-out for FireKeepers to take anywhere from 18 to 24 months to complete. He says the source of the renewable power will be in Michigan and “most likely not too far away from us.”
The time frame is not unusual given the work that goes into the project including land procurement. Supply chain issues can hold up the delivery of material such as transformers or solar panels, and the steel racking systems for those panels and the availability of the labor required also pose challenges, Clinton says.
“We have a waiting list of customers waiting to get into the queue,” he says.
Both Wise and Clinton declined to say how much the FireKeepers project will cost. A wind farm that Consumers Energy built for its own renewable energy production cost $260 million. That wind farm is located near Ludington and houses 60 wind turbines.
The focus on the future and a commitment to what current generations can do to protect the environment is also being seen in the number of Consumers Energy’s residential customers who want to use renewable energy sources, Clinton says.
“Some of them want to leave the environment a better place for future generations to come. We have other customers that may have their own personal environmental or sustainability goals,” he says.
An example of Consumer Energy's Solar Gardens at Western Michigan University.However, there is a financial cost to achieving these goals. For example, Clinton says some customers want a solar rooftop, but don’t have the financial means to cover the big upfront cost this solar option entails. Among their options is a subscription model called Solar Gardens where they can flexibly acquire renewable energy at a price point they can afford.
Some residential customers have access to Solar Gardens. Consumers Energy currently operates three smaller-scale community solar facilities at Western Michigan University, Grand Valley State University, and the City of Cadillac.
The utility provider has more than 2,500 customers enrolled in this program and the capacity for it is sold out, Clinton says, adding that more are in the process of being built.
This demand from residential and commercial customers is a good problem to have, Wheeler says.
“Before 2009, we didn’t offer rebates or incentives for energy efficiency. Our more intensive energy users spend a lot of time cutting costs and being energy efficient with their usage. Within the last 15 years, serious attention has been given to energy efficiency and more importantly to making a commitment to future generations to do the right thing.”
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Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.