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The lights will stay on--probably

The chances that the lights will go out on January 1, 2000, are low but still existent because some utilities haven't yet checked for the millennium bug.

Here's the good news: Your lights will probably still work on January 1, 2000.

The bad news? Electric utilities can't say that with certainty, because some of their computers still haven't been upgraded to fix the millennium bug.

A new report from the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) shows that while utilities are testing to make sure their computers will work in 2000, it is too difficult to know the risks of power supply and delivery interruptions due to the millennium bug.

"It is too early at this point to know for sure what the increased risks are, and even if they are significant," said NERC. "At this point, the perceived operating risks are manageable."

As the industry completes the remediation and testing phase, more complete information will become available regarding the operational impacts of Y2K. The report recommends that the industry coordinate risk assessment and development of contingency plans at the interconnection, regional, and organizational levels.

NERC has developed an initial guide to the contingency planning process. The plan calls for contingency plans to be ready by June 30, 1999, although initial drafts are to be available for review by the end of 1998.

News reports that widespread electricity outages will occur because of computer problems at utilities "are unsubstantiated," the report says.

However, the report concedes that the voice and data communications, needed for monitoring and control of power systems, are the most critical concerns about reliable operations.

Interdependence of electrical system operations on external communications providers, natural gas supplies, and rail transportation of coal supplies is also identified as a key priority in the report. Coordination efforts need to be stepped up at the industry and individual organization levels to provide "mutual assurance of resources and capabilities."

Many organizations are on track to meet or exceed the target dates proposed in the report--ready by June 30, 1999. But, "at the same time, there are some organizations who are late getting started, who have not shown sufficient progress, and who are projecting completion later than the recommended schedule. The aggregate effect, with the leaders on or slightly ahead of target, and others behind is that the center of gravity for the industry needs to be accelerated."

The NERC is a coordinating body through which ten regional panels agree on ways to handle power outages and transfers across the United States and most of Canada. Because of the everyday experience that utilities have in restoring power when there are disruptions, the group said the industry should be able to deal with any computer problems that do occur.

"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," the NERC said in its report.

David Swanson, senior vice president of the Edison Electric Institute, pointed out that U.S. electric supply and delivery systems are not heavily reliant on computers and electronic controls. "Those operations that do rely on computer systems can be manually operated in emergencies--and often are, during power outages arising from storms or mechanical problems," he said.

EEI is a Washington-based trade group that represents investor-owned utilities. The Department of Energy shares NERC's view that more utilities need to conduct tests to fix potential computer problems. The DOE also called attention to NERC's findings that utilities have already taken steps to ensure the millennium bug will not affect operations at their nuclear power plants, which produce about 20 percent of U.S. electricity supplies.

"No nuclear generating plant has found a [computer] problem in safety systems that would have prevented safe plant shutdown at the turn of the century," Deputy Secretary of Energy Elizabeth Moler said.