Electricity industry powers up for Y2K tests

The North-American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) will hold its final year 2000 (Y2K) readiness drills September 8 and September 9, and there may be a lot more riding on this drill than meets the eye.

The ninth day of the ninth month of 1999 is expressed as 9999 on older systems. As it turns out, 9999 is also a command to shut down a file in some applications.

"When the drill dates were picked six months ago, we weren't sure how risky they were. We thought it best to have people and resources ready," said Jon Arnold, chief information officer at Edison Electric Institute, the trade association for investor-owned electric utilities, in Washington.

The previous drill date of April 9 was also selected because it was the 99th day of the year and some concerns had been raised.

"As it turned out, they have very low risk in terms of power delivery and production," Arnold said.

According to Arnold and Ken Silver, a year 2000 consultant, one of the worst things that could happen just prior to midnight on December 31, 1999 is that large industrial users fearful of power failures could suddenly switch over and start using their own generators.

"'Let there be no unnatural acts' is the catch phrase we use," Arnold said, referring to so-called erratic behavior by customers.

A number of utility watchdogs are aware of the potential problem.

"Too much (power) is troublesome because you get higher voltages on your system that can cause problems just as low voltages can cause problems," said Eugene F. Gorzelnik, director of communications at NERC, in Princeton, New Jersey.

"We are communicating that to our biggest customers," Gorzelnik said.

In fact, as year 2000 testing proceeds, experts continue to predict that there will be light, power, and computer systems on Saturday, January 1. But when employees go to work on Monday, January 3, they may not be able to get into their buildings.

This is because local, not national, systems may become the focal point of year-2000 failures. Security card keys, fire alarms, and uninterruptible power supplies, all of which are date-sensitive, are cited by experts as potential problems.

Employees may be locked in or out of garages, elevators, and lobbies. IT personnel may not be able to open internal doors to computer rooms. Also, executive offices or rooms with valuable equipment may be inaccessible, Silver said.

"Security cardkey systems are date-smart," Silver said.

Another potential problem exists with building automation systems, according to Garry Myers, president of Tee Square Services, a building management system design company in Allendale, New Jersey.

"We've checked building automation systems that control heating and air conditioning, fire alarms, and security systems from coast to coast. Every one of them required either a firmware or software upgrade," Myers said.

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