Over the next several issues, Vital is giving you a chance to meet the team at POET. They are the heroes of POET and the ethanol industry. Their day job – and for some, over-night job – includes producing ethanol. But it’s more than that. It’s a passion for this American fuel and the ag communities they reside in. It’s a better future for their kids and grandkids.
In the last issue of Vital, we took you through a day in the life of the commodities team at POET. They take responsibility for the first step of the corn-ethanol process – procuring the corn.
So, now that we have the corn, it falls to the operations team to keep the process moving throughout the plant.
At 27 plant locations, POET converts over 500 million bushels of corn into over 1.6 billion gallons of ethanol, 9 billion pounds of distillers grains, as well as corn oil and other byproducts. Each plant is running at full speed 24 hours a day, 365 days per year with over 4,000 control points to monitor at any one time in the process.
The biorefineries run non-stop and need operators on site 24 hours per day, every day. That means at 3:30 in the morning, the operators are working. On Christmas Eve when the majority of the world is spending time with family, the operators are working. When Mother Nature decides to dump inches upon inches of snow in the Midwest, the operators are making sure the biorefineries are running impeccably.
It’s not an easy job. It takes a team of highly skilled and highly trained operators to manage this process and troubleshoot when problems arise.
A small shift in one of these control points can make or break the entire process. The operators have to understand the science and the mechanics of the entire process – their troubleshooting skills are sometimes put to the test within a matter of seconds.
“Different things can affect the process – it’s changing almost every day. … It’s not a job everybody would want. There are some times it can get a little exciting, to say the least. If you’re a person that can’t handle stress, it probably wouldn’t be a good position for you,” says Dean Kretsch, Operator at POET Biorefining – Bingham Lake, Minn.
But, these team members not only handle the stress, but they seem to thrive under it. Their knowledge and dependability ensure that the ethanol and byproducts leaving each POET biorefinery are some of the best in the industry.
An operator for about eight years, Kretsch has to be on the top of his game every day he sets foot in the biorefinery.
For example, cold weather can sometimes be a factor and cause equipment to break or valves to work incorrectly, which then affects the whole process. These problems, if not caught immediately, can cause big issues in the plant. The issues, though, are few and far between, because each operator is continuously monitoring the process and the equipment.
It’s not always the weather that affects the process. And it’s rarely predictable.
“On a day-to-day basis, corn variation can change the makeup of what you’re putting into the fermenter. Old corn, higher moisture, lower moisture – all of that affects the process,” Kretsch says. “When you’re going as fast as we are, the real challenge is to keep up and make sure you’re using the right recipe. If not, it creates more problems down the road.”
“The thing that I like about this job is it’s dynamic. It changes. You get chances to troubleshoot things,” says Jeremie Barclay, Operations Manager at POET Biorefining – Hanlontown, Iowa.
Working for a company like POET, the technology for the ethanol production process is constantly changing. Eight years later, the technology that Kretsch began his career with has improved and adapted.
For example, Kretsch says they are currently in a learning process as to how the equipment works for corn oil production, a new process for the Bingham Lake plant.
“There’s always something different that you need to learn,” he says.
Working as a Team
And to complicate their day-to-day even more, each operator is not limited to one area of the plant or one piece of equipment.
At POET Biorefining – Gowrie, Iowa, three operators per shift either work on slurry, dryers or distillation. The distillation operator also monitors the corn oil. They take samples of the slurry, corn and ethanol to verify that products are fit to continue the process.
“You have to know all three jobs – not just slurry, not just dryers, not just distillation. You have to know what to do if someone isn’t in the room. Everybody works as a team,” Shelli Larson, Operator at POET Biorefining – Gowrie says.
There is no typical day on the job. Today, you might find Larson taking samples from the fermenters and testing the glucose and ethanol levels. Tomorrow, you might find her weighing in and out trucks carrying wet cake feed or ethanol.
“We’re all driving toward the same goal. One person’s job directly drives the next person’s. One person doing their best helps everyone else out,” Daniel McDonald, POET Biorefining – Marion, Ohio, Plant Manager says. “Technicians (another title for operator) play an integral role in the plant operations.”
Since ethanol production is a continuous operation, what happens during one shift directly influences the next shift. There is no slacking off. Every point in the process needs to be exact and perfect. Even 11 hours into their shift, these operators and technicians don’t slow down. The night shift goes out with as much force as the day shift comes in. Handing over duties in the wee hours of the morning and checking out for the night, though exhausted, the team makes sure the new shift coming in isn’t caught off-guard. They discuss the smallest details of their shift – what changes were made to the process, what fixes were made, what to expect and not to expect.
But as their day (or night) ends and they drive away from the towering ethanol plant, they know that they’ve made a difference. The work is not easy, but it is rewarding. They’re cementing a better future for the next generation. Though sometimes the big picture may not be the first thing on their minds among the steam, the pipes and the valves, it’s always there. Each and every operator is a hero in their own right – they’ll never tell you this claiming they are only doing their part. And, their part is a huge part of creating a more energy-secure future.