Archive for Sunday, September 20, 1998


September 20, 1998


If Bud Park's plan doesn't work, Jan. 1, 2000, could be a cold, dark day across Kansas.

As Year 2000 project office manager for Western Resources Inc., Park has a big job: Making sure every computer and chip in the utility's system won't confuse the year 2000 with 1900, causing them to relay faulty information or shut down altogether.

Ask Park what Western Resources, which generates power at a KPL plant near Lawrence, is doing to get ready and you'll hear about a multistep plan that begins with an inventory of all the utility's systems, repairs to anything that isn't ready, and includes a last-ditch contingency plan -- just in case.

Prod him about the job's details, and he'll ask you to imagine looking inside your personal computer, or prying the cover off your VCR, and gazing at the circuits and wiring that make it all work.

But at the company's generating plants, substations and other facilities, there are cabinets full of that sort of stuff -- wires connecting chips and computer boards -- and all of it must be checked out by somebody.

Park is confident.

``These are they guys who work with this every day,'' he said of the people conducting the tests and effecting repairs. ``This is their bread and butter. It's not a tangle of wires to them.''

Lights out?

According to an industry report out last week, the chances the lights will go out are small -- but not out of the question -- because some utilities' computers won't be ready.

Here's the issue: Chips in relays, switches, sensors and other devices often use clocks for synchronization with other equipment, to schedule maintenance and calibration, or simply to know when to turn on and off.

And software programs use dates for a variety of calculations. But many programs and chips are not ready for the new millennium, because they were designed to represent years with only two digits. That's led to a fear they could go haywire when the clocks advance from ``99'' to ``00.''

So Western Resources, like many other utilities across the nation, is deep into the task of trying to verify that all its crucial equipment -- whether it be software or so-called ``embedded'' chips that run vital facilities -- can cope with what is commonly known as the Year 2000 computer problem, or Y2K.

``We feel good about what we're doing,'' Park said. ``Our company goal is to provide top-quality service to our customers, and this is a part of that.''

The well-plan-ned process Park described is needed to assess, and perhaps fix, a single piece of equipment at one facility. Multiply that by 7,800 utilities and power suppliers across the nation to see how big the project really is.

A problem with power generation in Iowa, for example, could affect customers in Kansas. Power flowing out of a plant in Missouri may not reach its intended destination if a faulty switch or relay trips up the transmission and distribution system.

What's more, the power supply in North America is dependent on an intricate chain of links that have to be inventoried individually, assessed and fixed. The distributed nature of the electric power industry also means that success depends on the collaboration of thousands of players.

That dependency was highlighted in last week's report, the first to take a comprehensive look at the overall situation.

In it, the North American Electric Reliability Council said that while utilities are working on the Year 2000 problem, it is difficult to know what the risks of power supply and delivery interruptions are due to the millennium bug.

The council was formed in 1968 in response to a blackout three years earlier that affected the Northeast United States and Ontario, Canada. Since then, its mission has been to ensure reliability throughout much of the United States, Canada and Mexico.

In May, the U.S. Department of Energy asked NERC to conduct a Year 2000 assessment. Thursday's report was its first.

``The initial findings,'' said Michehl Gent, NERC president, ``are that the impacts of Y2K on electrical systems appear to be less than first anticipated.''

But he didn't say the industry was out of the woods.

``The industry as a whole has to accelerate its current pace of work,'' he said, and with properly coordinated contingency planning, the risks can be reduced to manageable levels.

The council's report also called for increased cooperation among the nation's utilities to ensure more reliable contingency planning.

Deadline looming

The fact a picture of the problem is just starting to emerge 17 months before the new millennium alarms some critics.

``It is very disconcerting that at this point in time, we are just now starting to take a look at the whole industry,'' said Rick Cowles, director of Year 2000 solutions for the consulting firm TAVA-R.W. Beck and author of ``Electric Utilities and Y2K.'' ``We know that this is going to be an issue, but we don't know how big.''

What's more, the electric utility industry is no longer trying to fix everything -- there is simply not enough time and resources to do so. Instead, the goal is to identify and upgrade enough of the systems necessary to run key functions smoothly. Those that do not get fixed, it is hoped, will not be essential to core operations. And contingency plans are being drawn up to work around the systems that will not be mitigated -- and to cope with the unexpected.

Western Resources, a publicly held company based in Topeka, began its Year 2000 Project in mid-1996. That puts it a step ahead of most.

``There are some others out there that haven't even started testing yet,'' Park said last week. ``They know they have to, they just didn't get as early a start as we did.''

Still, electric power industry officials remain cautiously optimistic about the prognosis for their Year 2000 efforts. But many admit there could be failures.

The official assessment at Western Resources is that its systems will be ready. But it's making plans in case they're not, Park said.

``The final step (of the company's Year 2000 plan) is contingency planning,'' he said. ``We take a step back and assume that every one of our critical items will fail, then figure out how to work around it.''

The issue was thrust into the national spotlight in June, when Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, said brownouts and regional blackouts were all but certain. Bennett, chairman of the special U.S. Senate Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, has since repeated his concerns but now agrees with many in the industry saying that ``the power grid as a whole will not go down.''

Although there's still disagreement over the scope of the millennium bug, a few details can shed some light into its magnitude.

In a generating plant like the one near Lawrence, Park said, there's control room equipment, sensors that measure things like temperatures, speed, power settings. ``Whether our plants burn gas, coal, fuel oil or uranium,'' he said, ``they all generate power through a steam turbine. So there's controls on that.''

The final big category is protective equipment. ``It seems like every time you turn around in the power plant, there's more of that,'' Park said. ``And there's a lot of embedded controls in there.''

In terms of embedded chips, the problem may be more significant. In a typical coal or gas-fired power plant, there may be several thousand embedded devices, said Jim Fortune, operations manager for the Year 2000 embedded systems program at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit industry group based in California. A regional distribution system could have another thousand or so chips, he said.

``In a power plant, you get these things buried inside equipment,'' Fortune said. ``It is a daunting task to account for everything there is. And you have to understand what role it plays.''

Cowles said there are about 7,800 electric utilities and power producers in the United States. Only about 200 of those are large investor-owned utilities like Western Resources. The remaining 7,600 are municipal utilities, rural power cooperatives and independent power producers representing about a quarter of the nation's power capacity, he said.

``They are the folks that are kind of key to the whole mess,'' Cowles said. ``They input into and draw power from the same distribution system as everyone else. If they have problems ... everyone is potentially affected.''

The industry's potential problems also could stem from sources outside its own controls. Utilities that have upgraded their systems are concerned about others they rely on, ranging from banks and telephone companies to transportation systems that bring them fuel.

Robin Lampe, a Western Resources spokeswoman, said fixing the millennium computer bug was a top priority, adding that the company was not concerned by the lack of an overseer for the whole industry.

Last week's NERC report echoed that.

``Recent reports in the news media and on the Internet regarding anticipated widespread electricity outages are unsubstantiated,'' it said. ``In an industry that meets record peak demands during heat waves and quickly restores service to millions of customers who lost power due to a hurricane or earthquake, preparing for and dealing with operating risks is an ingrained part of the business.''

This story includes information from Journal-World wire services.

-- Richard Brack's phone message number is 832-7194. His e-mail address is

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