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Utilities confident / Minimal impact seen from Y2K problems

Wednesday, May 5, 1999

BY GREG EDWARDS Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

Bill Thompson said he isn't running out to buy a portable generator out of fear that the lights will go out on New Year's Day.

That's good news, because Thompson is manager of power supply for Virginia Power. He was a key participant when the utility took part in a nationwide drill in early April to test the power industry's preparation for Year 2000 computer problems.

Virginia Power and other electric utility companies are confident about their efforts to minimize the chance of major power outages when Jan. 1 rolls around.

What they can't be as secure about is the Y2K readiness of telecommunications companies on which they depend but over which they have no control. These firms provide some of the critical voice and data communications necessary for smoothly running electric generation plants and transmission systems.

The April 9 drill, in which more than 200 utilities participated, examined how utilities will cope if they lose communications because of Year 2000 problems. The problems are in older computers and chips that use a two-digit number to identify the year. When 2000 arrives, older systems that haven't been fixed could fail or create big problems if they read "00" as 1900.

A metro-area public opinion survey by the Richmond Times-Dispatch and WWBT-Channel 12 showed widespread public awareness of the potential for such problems in 2000.

The survey's respondents put power companies second on a list of businesses and institutions that they think might be affected. First on the list were banks.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy asked the North American Electric Reliability Council to oversee the power industry's preparations for 2000. The industry created the council in 1968 in reaction to a huge blackout in the Northeast.

In a status report Friday, the council said it appears 2000 will have minimal impact on North American electric systems. Sufficient generating capacity should be available to meet the nation's needs, and transmission outages should be minimal.

At the end of March, three-fourths of all the testing and repairs that are needed had been completed, compared with 44 percent in November. "The bottom line," said council President Michael R. Gent, "is that for the typical person or business in North America, the supply of electricity will be like that on any other New Year's Day."

Fewer than 3 percent of all electronic components tested have required Year 2000 repairs, the council said. And the problems found have been mostly cosmetic or nuisance errors such as incorrect dates in logs and displays. The ability to keep generating plants and distribution systems working doesn't appear to be a problem.

Rural electric systems may lack the resources of bigger utilities but they, too, appear to be ready for 2000. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association said last week that 82 percent of 794 cooperatives responding to a survey said they will complete preparations for 2000 by June 30. The rest said they'd be ready by year's end.

In Virginia, the State Corporation Commission has been monitoring the power industry's Y2K efforts. "We haven't seen anything that raises any alarms with us," SCC spokesman Ken Schrad said. (Information about Year 2000 is available on the SCC's Internet site and the Web sites of several Virginia utilities.)

Local telephone and other telecommunications companies have assured the power industry that they are ready for the Year 2000. Still, the power industry has identified telecommunications as one of a handful of key issues and made it the focus of its first Year 2000 drill.

Telecommunications is important because the United States and Canada are divided into three interconnected power grids. One stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains. Texas, showing a streak of independence, represents another. The third lies between the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean.

A loss of communications could cripple the abililty of utilities to monitor how much electricity is flowing on the grid. That would interfere with the normally automated process of balancing power generation with demand.

If generation and demand get out of balance, utility workers would have to intervene manually and either start new power generation or reduce demand, perhaps through the type of controlled blackouts that Virginia Power used during a 1994 ice storm. In a worst-case scenario, generation would have to be shut down to protect the system from damage.

For many years, Virginia Power has had an emergency plan to deal with a system falling out of balance, said Harold Adams, manager of business development and part of the utility's Year 2000 team. The company holds regular drills on the plan.

For Virginia Power, the center of activity during the April 9 drill was at its system operations center in the Innsbrook Corporate Center. Virginia Power, the state's largest electric utility, covers two-thirds of the state geographically and serves 2 million customers in Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.

The operations center was built in 1992, but its computer system has been replaced since. Operators sit at consoles before a curved, wall-size display that shows the location and status of Virginia Power's generation plants and major power lines.

The drill was a "desktop" exercise; participating utilities didn't actually shut down communications systems or generating plants. Because Virginia Power believes its internal communications are ready for 2000, managers focused on communications with surrounding utilities, some of which move across leased phone lines.

One alternative type of communication tested was satellite phones. About 40 employees took part. Besides those at Innsbrook, they included workers at the Mount Storm fossil-fuel plant, at transmission substations in Halifax County and Northern Virginia, and at the Surry Nuclear Power Station.

Virginia Power was pleased with its performance during the drill, as were managers at Allegheny Power and American Electric Power, two other large utilities serving the state.

"This exercise was another indication that Virginia Power is on track to be 100 percent [Year 2000] ready by the end of the year," said William S. Mistr, a vice president in charge of the Year 2000 team.

The drill was successful in that utilities across North America got a chance to test their backup communications systems and procedures, the reliability council reported. Some valuable lessons learned:

Some backup phone numbers were wrong.

Some two-way radio antennas will have to be relocated to provide adequate geographic coverage.

Congestion on backup communications can be avoided by training workers in radio protocol.

A few backup systems that didn't function properly need to be checked out before the next drill in September. Two other areas identified by the power industry in preparations for 2000 are the need to meet planning deadlines and the readiness of local distribution systems.

The issue of local power distribution is tricky.

The 3,000 U.S. and Canadian local distribution systems, the reliability council said, probably are least susceptible to Y2K problems because they are the least dependent on electronics and computers. However, because of their design, distribution systems have the fewest backup options and need to be thoroughly tested before the new year.

By the end of last year, 98 percent of the electric utilities in the United States and Canada were participating in the industry-coordinated assessment of 2000 readiness. Nearly all their critical systems will have been tested and made 2000-ready by June 30, the council said.

Virginia Power began getting ready for 2000 in 1993. When it's over, the company will have spent up to $40 million either fixing or replacing its equipment and software.

Allegheny Power, which serves parts of northwestern Virginia, said it will have committed 80,000 worker hours and $20 million by the time the new year is just a champagne memory. American Electric Power, which serves seven states and much of Virginia west of Lynchburg, has more than 200 workers and contractors tackling the problem at a predicted eventual cost of $68 million.

Despite all their efforts so far, power companies are taking no chances. They will have critical employees on the job on New Year's Eve at power plants, transmission substations and other important locations, ready to intervene manually if computer-related failures occur.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Greg Edwards covers regulated utilities for the Times-Dispatch. Contact him at 649-6390 or by email at: -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Tonight on NBC12 News at 6 p.m.: What local hospitals are doing to cure the millennium bug.

Find this week's Y2K series archived at:

) 1999, Richmond Newspapers Inc.

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-- art (art&, May 05, 1999


The above was from the Richmond Times-Dispatch web page and the link for it is

-- art (art&, May 05, 1999.

-- art (art&, May 05, 1999


That's nice, but show me the money. I don't give a tinker's damn how well their comms drill went April 9th. They don't understand the magnitude of anomolies the world's systems will be experiencing during rollover. It is not as simple as stating "We think we'll be OK, but we're not sure about so and so"

-- partypooper (in@the.dark), May 05, 1999.

They began in 1993. {snip}

"This exercise was another indication that Virginia Power is on track to be 100 percent [Year 2000] ready by the end of the year," said William S. Mistr, a vice president in charge of the Year 2000 team.


An interesting compliance date.

-- Mike Lang (, May 05, 1999.


Right now, it seems to be the most interesting compliance date left. I sincerely hope everyone continues to test like mad right up to the end of the year. I confess I would worry about anyone who declared themselves bug-free and stopped testing. Wouldn't you?

-- Flint (, May 05, 1999.

If Virginia Power ain't ready, ain't *nobody* gonna be ready. And VP will be ready (I'm betting).

-- Drew Parkhill/CBN News (, May 05, 1999.

For one to instill confidence in the public (we've all been lied to before) there should be more than a manager (P.R. person) to do the job. An independent verification programmer who is willing to elaborate the reasons why things will work out. I think we are all tired of smoke screen P.R. B.S.........Jaded enough by all the lies and require more to become a believer.

Sincerely, Feller

-- Feller (, May 05, 1999.

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