US, Canadian electric industry eyes Y2K

The North American electric industry is confident that it will solve year 2000 computer problems with little or no disruption to electricity supplies in the US or Canada, according to the latest industry self-assessment submitted yesterday to the US Department of Energy (DOE).

Although they acknowledged that there is much more work to be done and that some companies in the electricity supply chain will not meet the industry's recommended deadlines for year 2000 readiness, electric industry representatives cited significant progress on year 2000 preparations since the industry's first report to DOE last September. They predicted that any date-related computer glitches that persist into 2000 will be inconsequential.

"The rollover to the year 2000 will have only a minimal impact on electric system operations," said Gerry Cauley, year 2000 project manager for the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), a private industry group charged with coordinating the industry's year 2000 readiness effort. Based on the findings of NERC's second quarterly report to the DOE, the industry is roughly on target to meet its goal of year 2000 readiness by June 30, 1999, and the problems that have been encountered to date are "nuisance errors" that should not prevent generators and power delivery systems from operating.

"No outages for customers is a reasonable goal," Cauley told an overflow crowd of reporters at a press conference to announce the new report.

Clinton administration officials welcomed the report and its findings and echoed the cautious optimism of industry officials.

"There is no evidence at this time that the Y2K problem will create national failures in electric power service," said John Koskinen, an assistant to US President Clinton and chair of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, praising NERC as the first industry group to submit its second year 2000 assessment to the government. US Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson also lauded the report's findings, noting that 98 per cent of the entities that generate, transmit or distribute electric power participated in the latest assessment.

Koskinen also defended the accuracy of the report against criticism that its self-reported data is unreliable because it wasn't gathered or audited by a third party. Noting that the US Congress last year passed legislation protecting the industry from liability based on the information provided for the quarterly year 2000 assessments, Koskinen insisted that the participants have no incentive not to provide complete and accurate information to NERC.

The report's conclusion that there should be minimal operational impact from the year 2000 rollover is based on testing of more than 44 per cent of mission-critical components completed through November 30, 1998. "Live" tests of remediated electric generators have resulted in no critical failures that would have caused the shutdown of power systems, and no year 2000 problem has been found at any nuclear power plant that would prevent any safety system from shutting down the plant in an emergency, the report said.

Though generally optimistic, the NERC report does identify some remaining critical issues for the electric industry, including its reliance on third-party voice and data communication and its limited ability to test its external communication systems. Real-time operations and control of electric systems is directly dependent on outside telecommunications service providers, which makes it difficult to perform integrated testing of electrical system voice and data communications functions, the report said.

The electric industry has been working in cooperation with the communications industry and is planning some joint year 2000 rollover tests later this year, Cauley said.

"We're confident that the telecommunications industry is making progress" on year 2000 conversion, he said. "They're working as hard on the problem as anyone."

Asked if NERC was satisfied with the cooperation of the telecommunications industry, NERC president Michehl Gent offered "a qualified yes", admitting that they got a late start in the discussions. "It might have been our problem in not going after them more vigorously," he acknowledged.

Another critical issue for the industry's year 2000 readiness is the interdependence of the components in the electric power "grid" and the need for virtually all the more than 3000 entities that generate, transmit and distribute electric power to meet the year 2000 readiness targets in order to ensure uninterrupted service to customers.

"On average the industry is meeting its [year 2000] targets," Cauley said, "but that means some are ahead of schedule and some are lagging."

Follow-up discussions with those who are reporting that they will miss NERC's prescribed deadlines indicate that they generally have valid reasons to be off schedule, Cauley said, such as a regularly scheduled outage that will be used for testing or other project planning considerations that dictate an alternate testing schedule. And some tests that have been reported behind schedule are to nonessential systems, he added.

The final critical issue identified in the report is the radial design of electric distribution systems that provide few options for correction in real time in event of a failure. However, these are the "least digital" components of the electric power industry, Cauley noted, and the least susceptible to year 2000 anomalies.

Cauley made a key distinction between NERC's plan for year 2000 "readiness" and the more rigorous standard for year 2000 "compliance". The readiness standard that the electric industry is pursuing requires only that a component remains operational into the year 2000, even if a system reports incorrect date information or requires an external "patch" to display the correct date. Most electric industry systems will be brought into full year 2000 compliance, meaning they will calculate and display dates accurately, he suggested, though NERC will only monitor and report the industry's readiness for the year 2000 rollover.

The full text of the NERC report entitled, "Preparing the Electric Power Systems of North America for Transition to the Year 2000, A Status Report and Work Plan, Fourth Quarter 1998", is available at http://www.nerc.com/y2k/.

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