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Summary and Comments

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1998-05-06 19:39:28


Utility Insider Voices Doubts



There is very little on the Web regarding power companies. There is Rick Cowles' site. There are a few postings. But the pickings are slim.

Here is a personal report from someone inside the Australian power industry (April 2).

* * * * * * * * *

I am extremely concerned about the possibility of severe electricity outages in the Year 2000.

Please allow me to convey my credentials on this topic:

I have been a computer professional for 24 years. I spent my first 20 years developing and managing I.T. systems for a Power Utility, 7 years of which were directly involved in the development of software for Power Stations in the area of Power Station Plant Management, Data Logging, Metering, Maintenance Management Systems, LoadFlow analysis, Transient Stability and Short Circuit analysis. I am currently the Year2000 Project Manager for a Police Service agency in Australia. This rather unique mixture of roles has placed me in the rather uncomfortable position of being well aware of what the Year 2000 Problem is all about and how it affects a Power Station.

Unfortunately I recall seeing many instances of 2-digit year fields in the Power Station environment. This concerns me greatly. Data Logging systems feed directly into maintenance management systems which are designed to shut down items of equipment when maintenance is not carried out. As you are aware, this is done to safeguard worker safety and extend the life of the equipment. The sudden incidence of "00" will cause many of these systems to FAIL.

The problem as I see it is as follows:

1. Many of these critical management systems cannot be decoupled. Equipment is inter-dependant in a chain-like fashion.

2. Most Power Stations (in Australia) were built before 1980 using equipment and hardware from 1940 through to 1980.

3. Unlike most outages, where power can be re-directed from another line or Power Station, the Year 2000 problem will occur in most if not ALL Power Stations at around THE SAME TIME. This does not bear thinking about, as we must always have at least one Power Station on-line in order to "kick start" the remaining Stations (termed "System Black"). In some countries gas-fired Power Stations are held in reserve for this purpose, but my experience at these Stations is such that the equipment and systems are substantially the same as in traditional fossil fuel Stations. Hence the probability of most or all Stations being affected at the same time by the Y2K problem is VERY HIGH. This could lead to blackouts of weeks if not months..... A truly catastrophic scenario with major impacts on society and our own families.

4. In Australia the awareness level of Y2K at Power Stations needs to be improved, although some activity is present on the retail or distribution side.

5. Power Utilities around the world are proceeding through the process of corporatisation which is diverting attention fromTechnical issues such as this.

The critical Systems likely to be affected in a Power Station are:

Control Systems

Data Logging and Metering Systems

Maintenance Management Systems

Safety Control Systems

Switching Systems

These critical systems all have both embedded components and firmware with date-related functions.

So why isn't there a sense of urgency about this? As I see it, the problem is one of awareness. It is fair to say that the I.T. profession is more aware of the Y2K issue than any other profession. The reality is that there has been very little I.T. involvement at the Power Station level. Most of the systems operating at a Power Station are purpose-built systems supplied by non-I.T. firms, and the corporate I.T. Department has had little or no involvement. As a result, Y2K awareness is not at the level it should be with only 20 months to go.

We must thoroughly assess our level of risk at Power Stations IMMEDIATELY.

I hope I have made a contribution on this very important issue.

Yours sincerely,

Mr. Joseph Sgroi



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