Y2K and electric power industry (long)

Jim Whitehead (ejw@ICS.uci.edu)
Sun, 6 Sep 1998 14:30:56 -0700

After reading the article, "The Y2K Solution: Run for your Life!!" in Wired
6.08, August, 1998, which details a Y2K scenario which begins with the total
collapse of the national power grid, leading to cascading failure of the
food distribution, transportation, and communication systems, I decided that
the prudent thing to do is try to get more information on the electric power
industry's state of readiness. As we well know, just because it's printed
in Wired doesn't mean that it's true, only that it's well hyped. Though it
seems much longer ago, it was only in issue 5.03, March, 1997, that Wired
was confidently predicting the death of TV due to Push technologies.

Nevertheless, given the seriousness of the scenario, a few cycles spent
assessing the available evidence seemed like a worthwhile investment.

When talking to people, especially non-computer types, they often have a
hard time imagining how a Y2K problem could affect something like the
electric power system which, based on the typical consumer's interface to it
(eletrical plugs in their house and business), has nothing to do with
computers. This following alarmist site has a few detailed scenarios of how
embedded controllers can affect the power system, and pointers off to more
Y2K information on embedded controllers.


With scenarios at:


Another good source of energy sector Y2K information is May 14, 1998
testimony to the US House of Representatives, Committee on Science,
Subcommittee on Technology, from Kathleen Hirning, CIO of the Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission (FERC), which gives an excellent overview of how Y2K
problems can affect the energy sector, and gives the impression that
assessment activities are wel under way, but that there is very limited
information available on the state of Y2K remediation efforts.


The Electric Power Research Institute, EPRI <http://www.epri.com/>, has been
spearheading information sharing and awareness among the electric power
industry with their "Year 2000 Issues for Embedded Systems" project, with
home page:


As part of this program, EPRI is holding workshops such as:


EPRI is also maintaining an online database of results from Y2K assessment
from participating members. This seems like a really good idea to me, since
according to EPRI, an initial Y2K assessment only identifies about 70% of
affected systems.

Dr. Charles Siebenthal of EPRI also testified at a June 12 hearing of the
Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, and his testimony
makes for interesting reading:


A few quotes:

"U. S. utility participants in the EPRI Y2K program represent more than 70%
of the electric power generation capacity in the U.S."

"Testing results to date have been largely limited to off-line testing of
individual components. On-line testing requires that the off-line results be
understood in order to minimize the potential for equipment damage and/or
shut-downs which might impact electrical service. Component testing to date
has identified primarily nuisance type failures such as erroneous dates on
computer screens. To date, instrument and controller functionality appears
to be largely unaffected. Some testing of larger integrated systems such as
distributed control systems in power plants has been started. These tests
have produced some conflicting results which are being resolved through
collaborative efforts within our program."

A mixed bag here -- I was encouraged to see that most of the industry
(including my electric power supplier, Southern California Edison) is aware
of the problem, and are well on their way to having completed an assessment
of their Y2K problems. And, what problems they have found so far are
relatively minor. But, the really nasty problems, if they exist, will be in
the distributed control systems in power plants, and its discouraging to see
that this isn't very far along.

This is countered by survey resuts from the US Senate Special Committee on
the Year 2000 Technology Problem:


Executive Summary:

The Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem recently completed
a survey of ten of the largest oil, gas, and electric utilities in the
United States. The purpose of this survey was to determine the status of the
utility industry in terms of its year 2000 (Y2K) preparedness.

* Based on the survey results, we conclude that while these
utilities are proceeding in the right direction, the pace
of remedial efforts is too slow and the associated milestone
dates are so distant that there is significant cause for concern.

* It is also clear from the survey responses that despite
substantial completion of initial assessments, firms are
not confident that they have a complete and accurate picture
of their present Y2K compliance, making assurances of timely
Y2K compliance little more than a hope.

* Experts contend that the most difficult aspects of remediation
are in the renovation and testing phases; most of the firms
surveyed have not begun these critical phases of remediation.

* Utilities' ignorance of the Y2K compliance of critical suppliers,
vendors, and servicers and their lack of assurances from same
create additional uncertainty for utility consumers.

Since the firms tested are among the largest utilities in their fields with
the most available resources, we are pessimistic about the implications for
the rest of the utility sector.

Just to make sure I give proper air time to contrarian views, here is an
article titled, "8 Myths About the Millenium Bug", at:


However, it's interesting that the argumentation style in this article is to
provide quotes from people in various industries who say, "it's not a
problem." But no further rationale is given as to why I should trust what
these people are saying. After all, quotes in the news media are always
right, aren't they? :-)

Bottom line: It's too early to tell, but the picture should be much more
clear by the end of Q1 1999, since initial reports from remediation efforts
should start tricking in by then if all is going well. But, while the
electric power industry appears like it will go through the transition OK,
they make experience problems soon thereafter due to disruptions in the fuel
delivery systems. Plus, smaller electric utilities may not transition OK,
resulting in loss of power in covered areas. Plenty of cause for concern,
but it is unlikely to cause the end of civilization in the US. Prudent
preparation steps, such as ensuring an off-grid supply of heat in colder
areas, and good stocks of basic emergency prep. supplies, such as batteries,
food, and water, are unlikely to be needed in cities, but are a low-cost
hedge against what appears to be an uncertain date transition.

- Jim