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1998-06-12 02:24:06


Industry Executives Admit: Some Systems Will Fail



Power industry executives admit that there will be system failures in 2000. They say that the grid will stay up.

This appeared on the Christian Broadcasting Network's web site (June 9).

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The nation's power companies are spending millions of dollars in a frantic search-and-destroy mission to eliminate potential hazards posed by the Year 2000 computer bug. With the deadline fast approaching, there are still questions as to whether all of them will succeed.

"The odds are overwhelming that there will be failures in some places, " says software engineer Roleigh Martin. "The question for every individual is, 'Will it be my area?'" . . .

"When you consider how important our electric utilities are to everything we do in life, then you'll recognize that if we do not have our compliance for the Y2K and as things fall apart, it's going to be devastating in our entire society," says Rep. Connie Morella (R-MD).

Each power plant has thousands of computer chips that help control the generation of electricity. And many of these systems have internal clocks. Some of the clocks could go haywire when the calendar flips over to the year 2000, so utilities are working overtime to find every wayward chip. . . .

There are literally millions of these embedded chips in power plants around the world. Most are pretty inconspicuous; you can't tell that there's an internal clock just by looking at them. . . .

Even if only a few generating stations go down, sections of the North American power grid could be at risk. Power plants are interconnected to provide backup electricity to one another. But if a plant, say in southeastern Indiana, were to shut down, consumers would begin drawing power from other stations in the region. If several plants shut down, the remaining on-line plants would become overworked, dramatically reducing the amount of available electricity. . . .

"The grid was never programmed to handle an abundant number of simultaneous failures," says Martin. "If this is a critical design problem that's going to occur in the same month at the same time, then you can have a lot of Davids bringing down Goliath." . . .

At the annual Edison Electric Institute in Chicago, power industry executives sound confident that they're prepared for Y2K. But they were advised in no uncertain terms that Y2K could be a time bomb set to explode on the entire industry.

"There isn't sufficient time or resources available to test every process control in the field, in the electric system, or in the gas system, for that matter," says C.D. Hobbs of the Meta Group. "And as a consequence, utilities will have to make hard decisions about which process controls are likely to have the greatest impact, and then focus on those systems."

Many power plants will manage to stay on-line, but those that rely on coal to generate electricity are still at the mercy of other industries. For instance, if a plant uses coal that is delivered by railroad, then that railroad must be Y2K-compliant. And according to the experts, the railroads are having problems of their own.

"The coal-based utilities are at the highest risk because of the critical vendor dependency," says Martin. "You have the railroads that must upgrade not only their embedded systems, but their mainframe software, especially dealing with inventory control."

Federal energy regulatory commissioner Vicky Bailey believes that everyone will be ready when the deadline arrives.

"I think it will be a partnership and a concerted effort to make sure that reliability is not impaired, that security of the grid is maintained, and that there's enough capacity there to maintain the level and quality of service that consumers have come to know," she says. . . .

While there's little agreement over the extent of potential power disruptions, it appears that electric utilities are in a race against the clock to keep all their systems functioning normally during those first few minutes of the Year 2000.


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