Municipal Water Leader
Interview

The Knoxville Utilities Board: Ensuring High-Quality, Sustainable Services for Decades to Come

The Knoxville Utilities Board (KUB) provides electric, natural gas, water, and wastewater services to more than 473,000 customers in Knoxville, Tennessee, and parts of seven surrounding counties. The utility service received the 2021 Sustainable Water Utility Management Award from the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA). Municipal Water Leader spoke with KUB President and CEO Gabe Bolas and Manager of Plant Operations Joshua Johnson about KUB’s operations, stewardship, and challenges. 

 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your backgrounds and how you came to be in your current positions. 

Gabe Bolas: I am the president and CEO of KUB. I’ve been here for 26 years. I started as an entry-level engineer, working on the electrical side of our business, and over many years of leadership, I’ve been a part of all four of our utilities. As I got more experience and opportunities, I was able to step into the role of vice president and ultimately into that of president, which I have held for the last 3 years. 

Joshua Johnson: I’ve been at KUB for 20 years. I’m the manager of plant operations. We own and operate four wastewater plants and one water treatment facility in and around Knox County. I came to KUB as a wastewater treatment plant operator. I started working shifts at the largest plant, Kuwahee. Then, after gaining experience at multiple plants, KUB assisted me in going back to college and earning a degree in civil engineering from the University of Tennessee. I worked in natural gas engineering for a while before I came back as the manager of plant operations in 2017. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about KUB. 

Gabe Bolas: We’re an independent agency of the City of Knoxville. We were created in 1939 as a standalone municipal utility. We are managed by a seven-member board appointed by the mayor. Our operations are independent, but the city has some oversight over us. Our board controls the rate-setting and decisionmaking part of our business. On the water side of the business, we serve 81,000 retail customers as well as two wholesale customers: Dandridge, a town northeast of us, and a utility district called Shady Grove. We provide them millions of gallons of water each day that they then deliver to their customers. 

Gabe Bolas: We have around 1,000 employees working at four utilities that serve different areas. Electric is our largest footprint; it serves 210,000 customers in parts of 6 counties. Gas is our second largest, with 110,000 customers; then water, with 81,000 customers; and wastewater, with 72,000 customers. 

We were just approved by the City of Knoxville to get into the fiber and broadband business. It was a no-brainer for us, given the demand created by the number of people working and learning from home during the COVID‑19 pandemic. We’ll hire 200 new employees over the next 5 years. We are in the process of building our system so that we can provide high-speed internet to customers, especially those who are currently underserved or not served at all. We hope to begin serving customers by December 2022 and to provide coverage to our entire service area within the next 7 years. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell our readers about KUB’s sustainability efforts. 

Gabe Bolas: We have made a commitment to add 502 megawatts of solar generation to the electric grid on behalf of KUB customers. When it’s up and running, solar will comprise 20 percent of our total load. We also have a lot of programs that support the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). For example, we offer a rebate for customers who install an EV charger in their homes. We are building our first community solar project. It will give residents an opportunity to subscribe to solar power even if they can’t put solar panels on their house or if they live in an apartment. It will be constructed in the next year. We are really excited about those projects. Knoxville must reduce emissions over the next several years, and we’re a big part of that equation. This will go a long way toward helping the city achieve its goal of an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050. 

Another aspect of our sustainability efforts is that for 10 years, we have been focused on how to make our plants more efficient. To modernize our plants, we’ve replaced a lot of our old single-speed motors and blowers with efficient alternatives. When we compare ourselves with our peers, we’re in the top quartile for energy used and gallons produced. We’re treating wastewater efficiently and with great quality. Some of the equipment we have put in, such as the vertical pumps, are impressive in their efficiency and life cycle. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about how KUB received AMWA’s Sustainable Water Utility Management Award. 

Joshua Johnson: This award recognizes KUB for making the right investments to develop and promote environmentally sustainable initiatives in its programs and operations, such as our Green Invest solar purchase and our participation in the mayor of the City of Knoxville’s Climate Council and in our local water quality forum. KUB really appreciates the opportunity to participate in these types of industry recognition programs. It gives us feedback to show that we’re doing everything we can with our operations and that we’re hitting the mark with best practices across the industry. It also provides the community and our customers a way to feel confident that we’re doing a great job. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please discuss KUB’s efforts to upgrade its infrastructure to reduce water consumption in its service area. 

Joshua Johnson: KUB has a program called Century II, which establishes sustainable replacement cycles to improve and maintain our infrastructure. The program was established by our board of commissioners to ensure that we make appropriate investments in infrastructure, stay ahead of the curve on technology, and avoid infrastructure failures. One example of technology that we’ve implemented to reduce water loss is a tool that helps our engineers locate and repair leaks in the distribution system. Not only can our plant operators see the distribution tanks, see when the slope of the line changes, and find leaks, but our engineering staff also has a data analytics program that allows them to find leaks before they surface. It amazes me that we’re finding and making repairs before a leak has even surfaced on the road or in a ditch line and before any customers call to report the leak. 

Municipal Water Leader: How long have you been carrying out that data collection? 

Gabe Bolas: I would say for 4–5 years. We have always looked for leaks, but now we’re using cutting-edge technology to help us with leak detection. Knoxville’s geography is unique. We have a lot of sinkholes, so water can just disappear, meaning that a leak can go undetected for a long time. It’s been amazing what we’ve detected so far. Technology has driven that; we couldn’t do this stuff several years ago because the technology didn’t exist. 

Joshua Johnson: Data analytics has helped us focus on certain areas of the distribution system, allowing us to see even slight changes in water use. We are down to finding gallons per minute in certain areas. It’s been a big benefit for us. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your water supply master plan. 

Joshua Johnson: That’s one of our main focuses. We’re always looking to the future and searching for ways to support our customers and the communities we live in. A good example of that is that we’ve established a team of employees to evaluate the future of water treatment and supply for our community and to develop a plan that will provide reliability, redundancy, and operational flexibility for decades. That team is evaluating what KUB is going to look like over the next 50–100 years. In addition to that, we just completed a source water study to help us understand the treatment plant source water and the watersheds around us. It’s led us to build relationships with watershed partners and really everyone who shares the riverbanks with us. 

Municipal Water Leader: Does the master plan consider the risk of drought over the coming decades? 

Joshua Johnson: We do look at drought management programs, but in the 1920s, the designers located our plant on a great water source. Because it’s a navigable waterway, the Coast Guard requires that it stay at a certain level, so we’re fortunate to always have water at the source water intake. Also, we’re just a few miles down from the confluence of two water sources, the French Broad River and the Holston River, which provides us with balanced source water. 

Gabe Bolas: The Tennessee Valley Authority has flood control dams above and below us that retain the water. We’re more worried about third-party contaminants than about our water source. 

Municipal Water Leader: What are the organization’s other top concerns? 

Joshua Johnson: Like other utilities, we’ve worked through the challenge of the pandemic. KUB took extraordinary steps to maintain employee safety while providing the services our customers expect. We isolated operators in different locations throughout the plant to reduce their contact with others so that the oversight of water treatment and distribution weren’t interrupted. 

One of the issues we and really the whole water and wastewater industry have experienced over the past few years is continued retirements. KUB is taking a proactive approach to collecting and passing on valuable knowledge from experienced operators through our award-winning operator qualifications program. New operators spend their first year working side-by-side with a qualified operator in order to learn plant operations in a structured way. 

Municipal Water Leader: Has KUB been affected by the hiring crisis or had trouble finding qualified workers? 

Gabe Bolas: We have had a lot of employees retire. To train new workers, we have worked closely with our local community college, Pellissippi State Technical Community College, to create an operator program, which is now a 2‑year degree in plant operations. We also pay or help pay for the education of the next generation of workers. 

Joshua Johnson: KUB and other surrounding utilities have partnered to develop the water technology associate degree at the community college. The college is actually working with the State of Tennessee to make that associate degree count toward a student’s certification for treatment. What we’re hoping is that a graduate of that program could take their certification test early and then obtain the on-the-job training required to be a licensed operator. It’s been a great partnership. We also partner with the college to do plant tours so that students can see a large plant. The students also visit some small utilities around us to see the whole scope of treatment. 

Municipal Water Leader: What is your vision for the future? 

Joshua Johnson: We have a simple mission: to serve our customers. That means we focus on keeping our rates low and our water quality high and replacing our facilities and infrastructure at the right time, which is always a challenge. Having the right people in place is paramount. We are making sure that we have high-quality operators, engineers, and maintenance people. We are focusing on our culture so that we create a good atmosphere for a great career, not just a job. 

Gabe Bolas is the president and CEO of the Knoxville Utilities Board. 

Joshua Johnson is the manager of plant operations of the Knoxville Utilities Board. Mr. Bolas and Mr. Johnson can be contacted at execdept@kub.org.