Water and wastewater utilities spend a lot of time dealing with current issues =- putting out “fires.” But there are larger trends that will affect the industry. Here are a couple recent topics that we should consider in our industry:
Will robots be doing all our repetitive jobs? If so what does that mean for all the people doing those jobs now. Most do not require a lot of skills, and many of those in the jobs that will be lost, do not have the skills for other jobs? Does the $15 per hour minimum wage accelerate this transition? How does this affect the water industry? Meter readers might be replaced with AMR systems. Customer service is already migrating to direct banking. There is a change coming.
What does the driverless car mean for us? I am thinking about an old Arnold Schwartzenegger movie. For utilities the issue may be how we interact with unmanned vehicles, especially when what we do can be disruptive to traffic. What happens if those cars get into an accident? And Warren Buffett is thinking about the impact of this on the insurance industry. He owns a lot of GEICO stock. It is doubtful many utility vehicles will be unmanned, in the near-term, but do our manned vehicles and the potential disruption leave us open to greater risk of loss?
Speaking of Warren Buffett says the economy is far better than certain candidates suggest. I tend to trust Mr. Buffett. He’s been doing this a long time and has been fabulously successful. But he notes structural changes to the economy like those noted above, are ongoing. That will create conflict for certain professions that migrate to automation, much as manufacturing did in the 1970s. He raises concern about what happens to those workers and suggests that we have not planned enough for those workers who get displaced as the economy undergoes continuing transitions. In the late 1970s we had CETA and other jobs training programs as we moved from manufacturing to other jobs. He does not see that in place now. The at-risk – the poor, minorities, the less educated, rural citizens…. in other words, the usual groups will be hit harder than the rest of the population. I don’t hear that discussion on the campaign trail but utilities may want to follow these trends is the hope that we can acquire some of the skillsets that we need. Or provide that training.
Florida’s flood protection plan received a C- from a study called States at Risk. It said Florida lacks a long term plan for rising seas, despite being vulnerable. On an unrelated note, the state is expecting insurance premiums to increase 25% or more for flood insurance for homeowners. And local officials are working busily on FEMA maps to exclude as many properties as possible from flood insurance requirements. Maybe those things are all related, just at opposite purposes, but who is going to get the calls when flooding occurs? Storm water utilities, and sewer systems where the manholes are opened to “facilitate drainage.” The question is what the ratings are for other states as Florida was not the least prepared nor is it the only state with exposure.
A final current trend to think about is this: Current sea level rise projections have increase the high end, but remained steady for the 50 percentile case. By 2200 we may see seas at 10 ft higher. That would be a major problem for south Florida. But the world population will be over 15 billion, which exceeds the carrying capacity of agriculture (at present projections and techniques). It also places over half the world in water limited areas. So sea level rise is going to be huge in south Florida, but will concern be localized because of more pressing issues? Is the number of people going to be our biggest issue in 2200? Note both will be critical for a large portion of those 15 billion people, but the solution to either is…..?