Operations Leader Optimizes Aging Plant

When Ethanol Producer Magazine asked for nominations of rock star operators, the name of an industry veteran of almost two decades rose to the top. This story appears in the August issue of EPM.
By Holly Jessen | July 14, 2015

Robert Jewell, energy systems chief at Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. has worked at the Benson, Minnesota, ethanol plant for about 13 years. He also worked at a nearby ethanol plant in Morris, Minnesota, which today goes by the name DENCO II, bringing his total time working in the ethanol industry to just short of 18 years.

He has worked primarily in utility or energy centers, although, he has also operated distillation and evaporators as well as cook and fermentation lines. Currently, Jewell supervises four full-time energy system operators, as well training and cross-training employees in energy system operations.

Prior to his career within the ethanol industry, Jewell worked as a facility manager of a company that manufactured flexible circuit interconnect solutions used in the computer, networking, communication, storage, consumer, medical, and electronic industries. He also worked as a foreman at a wastewater treatment plant and a maintenance technician.

Jewel provided EPM with information about some of the projects he has managed, past and present. Currently, Jewell and the CVEC team are working toward installation of a new high-efficiency boiler, expected to come online later this year. Specifically, it’s a 2,500 horsepower, 3 pass, 86,250-pound-per-hour water back, fire tube steam boiler. The project was initiated after the company installed a regenerative thermal oxidizer and repurposed the old thermal oxidizer as a waste heat boiler, he says. However, due to inefficiency, it was later repurposed into a steam generator, leading to the soon-coming instillation of the new boiler. “This project will provide improved system reliability and improved energy efficiency,” he says.

He has also worked to identify and implement numerous other steam plant optimization measures. One benefit the company has been able to reduce boiler makeup water use by 74 percent. Specifically, in a year, CVEC is able to use about 1.7 million gallons less reverse osmosis (RO) water and about 3.6 million gallons of soft water feed to the RO. This saved the company about $15,000 in a year, by reducing natural gas use. Additional benefits include savings due to lowered chemical use as well as less wastewater discharge.

Also on his radar was optimizing the plant’s cooling systems and reducing chiller operational requirements. Jewel was able to devise and implement measures that resulted in an annual 32 percent average annual reduction in chiller operating hours in the past four consecutive years, compared to the previous five years. “This equates to avoiding 726 hours or 30 days of operation annually,” he says, adding that it has saved the company more than $20,000 yearly in electrical costs, resulted in improved fermentation and process cooling capabilities as well as reduced routine maintenance expenses.

Another project Jewell worked on was managing installation and temporary operation of a prototype system that helped the plant displace propane use in the winter of 2012-’13. CVEC, along with other ethanol plants, was hit hard by propane shortages and high prices, which many ethanol plants use as fuel during natural gas curtailment periods. Though a relationship with another company, CVEC was able to conduct performance testing on a proprietary liquid natural gas vaporization or re-gasification system that was still in R&D. Without the backup system, the plant may have had to temporarily idle due to restricted availability of natural gas and propane fuel, he says,  he says, adding that the ROI was less than a week.

Words of Praise
Vincent Copa, process engineer for CVEC, says Jewell is vital to the company’s goal of completing infrastructure upgrades at the nearly 20-year-old ethanol plant. “One thing that puts Bob head and shoulders above others is his ability to mediate between departments,” he says. “Engineering wants the most efficient project with the best ROI (return on investment). Operations wants something they can understand and operate intuitively.  Maintenance wants easy access to items that require periodic maintenance or calibration. These are not mutually exclusive goals, but Bob seems to ask the right questions at the right times so that the entire staff gets on the same page.”

When asked to describe Jewell, Andrew Zurn, engineering manager said, “In a nut shell, he’s technically competent, detail orientated, dependable, hardworking, honest, has a knack for operating equipment and writes a dang nice report.”

In fact, Jewel’s report-writing skills leave Zurn feeling a little envious. Jewel uses those skills to track equipment operation and documents that information in a detailed and organized manner by including photos and notes. “This skill was particularly valuable when CVEC commissioned and eventually made sustained operating runs on the commercial scale Frontline BioEnergy gasifier here at CVEC,” he says. “Bob functioned as the chief operator of the gasifier throughout all phases of startup through sustained operation.” CEVC’s gasifier, which was used to generate steam and replaced pipeline natural gas, was completed in the spring of 2008, in the midst of high natural gas prices, and isn’t operational today.

Other work
But Jewell’s performance doesn’t just shine in his work at CVEC. He’s involved in multiple activities that benefit ethanol and the industrial sector in general,  including serving on two advisory boards. Currently, he’s in his sixth year as an appointed industry representative of the State of Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry Construction Codes Advisory Council. Established in 2008, the advisory council works to “to review laws, codes, rules, standards, and licensing requirements relating to building construction,” according to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry website. Among other things, “it may make recommendations about ways to eliminate inconsistencies, to streamline construction regulation and construction procedures and to improve procedures within and among jurisdictions.”

He has also served for more than two years on Minnesota’s boiler licensing advisory board, which collaborated on legislation with various representatives of government, industrial, institutional and commercial business sectors. As a result, boiler engineer licenses were reclassified in order to address the issue of licensed operator staff shortages and to more closely represent current operations across the state. In addition to the license reclassifications, the Minnesota Legislature created a provisional first-class engineer license, which allows currently licensed second-class A or B engineers to serve as shift engineers at 500-plus horsepower boiler plants, he said. This allows for on-site training and certification of second class engineers to operate site-specific systems that previously required a first class licensed operator. 

Since the inception of the provisional first-class A or B boiler licensing program in Minnesota, a total of 90 provisional licenses have been issued to employees working at 36 separate companies, including nine ethanol plants. At this time, there are 46 active individual provisional licenses for this in the state of Minnesota. “It is not uncommon for industrial facilities to struggle with staffing challenges regarding filling and keeping people in 1A or 1B licensed operator positions,” he explains. “The provisional licensing program has given all sectors of industry, including ethanol, another means for addressing staffing shortages regarding those positions and complying to the state operator licensing and steam plant attendance requirements.”

Last, but not least, Jewell writes technical articles about water quality, water conservation and water sustainability for some Minnesota Rural Water Association publications and other organizations. Although the articles aren’t written specifically for the ethanol industry, the subject matter is relevant to the ethanol industry. 

Author: Holly Jessen
Managing Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine