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1998-05-15 14:32:27


We Just Don't Know Says Senior Government Bureaucrat



Western civilization rests on electrical power grids. Are the grids vulnerable? This U.S. government official, a computer specialists, says no one knows.

I'd call this a thin thread on which to hang a civilization.

The official wishes to promote awareness of the problem. That's right. Awareness. In mid-May, 1998.

I'd prefer to see her promote the final stages of testing the interconnected systems of the 6,000 power plants in the U.S. I guess I'm greedy.

Here is what we learn from her testimony:

The y2k problem may be big; then again, it may not be.

The U.S. government has no authority here.

The energy industry is interconnected.

Embedded chips hold it together.

No agency is in charge of coordination.

The industry is studying the y2k problem.

Hardly anyone is the industry is going public with information.

The government needs more information.

The government may take a stronger hand, if it has the authority.

The government will hold meetings. Also workshops. (When you don't know what to do, hold a workshop. It diffuses responsibility for failure.)

The industry is responsible, not the government.

Any questions?

I have a question: How long will it take Western civilization to recover if the grid goes down? Ten years? A century? Unknown at this time?

* * * * * * * * *

Testimony of Kathleen Hirning, Chief Information Officer, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, before the Subcommittee on Technology, Committee on Science, United States House of Representatives, May 14, 1998

My name is Katie Hirning, and I am Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (Commission or FERC). My responsibilities for information technology include operating and maintaining FERC's internal network and its automated systems, and developing infrastructure needed for electronic filing, workload processing, and information dissemination. I also represent the Commission on the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion and as a member of the Small Agency Council.

The magnitude of the potential Year 2000 problem in the regulated energy industries is not yet known. However, FERC acknowledges the importance of the Year 2000 problem and recognizes that its involvement in solutions to it may be necessary. Because the energy sector is critical to the operations of all other sectors of the economy, I believe that it is essential for the federal government, along with industry, to promote awareness of this problem through cooperation and communication. . . .

However, permit me first to lend a critical perspective to my testimony. The Commission regulates economic aspects of natural gas pipeline companies, electric utilities, and oil pipeline companies to ensure that their customers' rates and terms and conditions of interstate transmission service are just and reasonable. In addition, it licenses privately-owned and operated hydroelectric facilities on navigable waterways of the United States.

The Year 2000 issue presents an unusual problem for FERC because the Commission does not exercise direct authority over internal operations of the regulated companies' businesses as a general matter. The Commission would have regulatory authority over the ability of regulated utilities to recover, in their rates, the costs expended in correcting the Year 2000 problem, but not over the measures taken by the utilities to correct the problem. Furthermore, FERC's regulation does not encompass the entire energy sector or even all aspects of the natural gas, electric, or oil pipeline industries. Large portions of these industries are subject to the authority of other Federal agencies or state and local governments, or are self-regulated or unregulated. . . .

Some believe that correction of Year 2000 errors and testing of those corrections, if left incomplete, could have serious consequences. On the other hand, the consequences may be minor and quickly repaired or accommodated by contingency planning. The consequences of not fully understanding the seriousness of the problem in particular sectors is the problem. . . .

Conventional computer systems and embedded systems (a.k.a microprocessors, chips, and 'black boxes') are of major concern for the energy sector's Year 2000 readiness. The impact of conventional computer systems on the energy sector is not unlike its impact on other sectors. . . .

Energy companies use computers to connect plants, refineries, district offices, and major administrative and operational systems that interface with large data centers. Computers are also used to remotely control transmission system breakers, coordinate power generation schedules, compensate for large transmission line breaks, and provide protection against voltage, current, and frequency fluctuations.

Year 2000 readiness also includes the performance of thousands of embedded microprocessors. Embedded systems are present at plants, pipelines, control and dispatch centers, headquarters, and other energy facilities. Identifying Year 2000 errors in embedded systems generally requires significant manual effort. The process cannot be automated and is likely to require physical inspection of hardware distributed widely throughout an organization. Inventory, assessment, and remediation of embedded systems are especially difficult and expensive. . . .

Although reliability is very important to natural gas and oil pipeline operations, the electric transmission systems are highly integrated machines that ties utilities and their customers together. The U.S. electric power system includes thousands of power generating plants and millions of consumers -- all tied together by the electric power grids. One electric power plant alone may have thousands of embedded systems. Without testing, the potential impact of Year 2000 errors could cause some embedded systems to malfunction, possibly resulting in a ripple effect across a portion of the grid. Because of the interconnected nature of the grid, it is important to test for malfunctions in interconnected systems as much as feasible.

Embedded systems are used to control and monitor power production and delivery equipment in electric utilities. Computer controlled equipment includes many date-sensitive components, from very small programmable logic controllers to extensive network control systems. Many of the systems that have a date function may pass through the critical date without causing a fault. But they could later refuse to accept a modified instruction or even a new date entry. Other systems may have faults that could result in power outages.

Grid control is decentralized. Each utility or sometimes a small group of utilities controls its own grid. However, utilities are interconnected, and must coordinate their activities to maintain reliability. . . .

Reliability in the Oil and Gas Industries

There is a similar situation in the oil and gas industries, i.e., interdependencies between the production facilities and pipelines used for transporting and distributing oil and gas. The pipeline industry is made up of producer, transmission, and distributor sectors. Embedded systems occur in all sectors. Some oil and gas production facilities, such as offshore platforms may have ten thousand or more embedded chips. Many may be subsurface and physically difficult to access. . . .

Gas pipelines include compressor stations to move the gas through the lines, as well as gate stations where pressure is reduced, volumes of gas are measured, and regulators control the flow of gas into distribution lines. The gas industry is addressing the Year 2000 issues associated with interconnections among producing and distribution functions, i.e. "upstream and downstream" functions. Another Year 2000 focus is on newer equipment purchased to communicate station-to-station and to meter the flow of gas. As stations are generally 50 to 75 miles apart, if communications fail due to Year 2000 problems, alternative means must be used.

Many of the Year 2000 considerations for the gas industry are present in the oil industry, only in different form. For example, meters to measure oil use transducers to measure liquids. Oil SCADA systems require a shorter response time for an oil leak compared to gas leaks, which may be remediated by changing pressure. Unlike the electric industry, the oil and gas industries are fragmented, and do not have regional councils or control areas.

The Industry Response

The extent of completed Year 2000 work within the energy industry is largely unknown. . . .

Last year the American Petroleum Institute (API) formed a Year 2000 taskforce of representatives from industry. They agreed to construct databases from various segments of the industry. API has scheduled a meeting in July to discuss Year 2000 compliance, information exchanges, and other concerns. API also sponsored and disseminated a Year 2000 awareness research paper. The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America has conducted a survey of their member companies Year 2000 compliance status, and the results are currently being analyzed. The Gas Research Institute is surveying their member companies to help formulate Year 2000 strategies.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's Role

The Commission is, at the Chairman's direction, exploring how to mount an effective Year 2000 outreach program. It would be designed to encourage its regulated companies to take responsible action to ensure that their energy systems will continue to function on January 1, 2000 and beyond. Without cooperative communication between industry members and the federal government, understanding the potential magnitude and complete implications of the problem is difficult. . . .

At every opportunity, FERC's Chairman, Commissioners, and Office Directors are promoting awareness of the Year 2000 issue and encouraging the cooperation that already exists among energy organizations and their customers. Further, we hope to encourage companies to make more information available to the general public. The public needs specific information on how serious the problem is, what is being done to address it, and what they can expect come January 1, 2000. The Commission will also help make information available to our regulated companies and to the general public on Year 2000 through the FERC Web site regarding how serious the problem is, what is being done to address the problem, and information developed by others to solve technical issues. . . .

In the near future, the Chairman is considering taking the following steps:

sponsoring a Year 2000 staff technical symposium for FERC's regulated companies and industry associations;

offering to present Year 2000 information at industry workshops and seminars addressing the problem; and

preparing Year 2000 promotional materials for dissemination at conferences and meetings.

If, over the next few months, we find that some segments of the industry appear to be unable to meet the requirements of Year 2000 deadline, we may have to take more direct measures to ensure an uninterrupted power supply. Those measures will vary by the amount of regulatory authority we have and the degree of cooperation we receive from industry.


In the end, energy industry participants have the responsibility for addressing this problem. We believe the Commission has a central role nevertheless. The Chairman views it as the Commission's responsibility to the American public to help alleviate this potential threat to the reliability of our energy systems. We can promote the sharing of a Year 2000 information within the industry, its companies, suppliers, consultants, and state and local expertise. We can help disseminate what is known in other industries about similar products and problems, and we can maintain an awareness about factors external to the industry upon which energy depends.

We look forward to working with the Subcommittee on Technology in the

months ahead and we welcome your questions.


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