Despite months of gloomy prognostications, analysts and research reports indicate the Year 2000 (Y2K) computer problem--a date-sensitive programming flaw that could cause malfunctions or failures--is unlikely to wreak havoc on most of the nation's utilities and related infrastructure.
Experts now believe public and private electrical utilities, drinking water systems, sewage treatment plants, natural gas operations and similar systems have largely been inoculated against the so-called millennium bug and that any disruptions in service will be limited and rare. Computer-related problems could affect utilities' customer billing systems, and the internal distribution and routing of resources such as gas and oil, but those glitches will go unnoticed by most consumers, analysts said.
Similarly, the White House is confident there will be no disasters. And the U.S. Navy, which had issued a report that seemed to indicate several likely power outages and water system failures earlier in the year, later clarified its data, which had been "misrepresented" and caused "undue concern." "There are no indications of likely widespread failures of water, electricity, gas or sewer," the Navy said in August.
"Basically it's going to be business as usual. We're pretty sure nothing much is going to happen," said John Gantz, a senior vice president at International Data Corp. and the large market research firm's chief Y2K researcher.
"We expect hardly any problems at all," said Lou Marcoccio, research director at Gartner Group, a major business consulting firm. "The operational aspects of some utilities could be affected but the end user wouldn't even see it."
Analysts believe only a small fraction of semiconductors will be affected by Y2K problems--Gartner Group estimates just 1 in 100,000 chips will misfire--and that drinking water systems, sewage, and gas and oil utilities have few microprocessor controllers that could malfunction. Although electrical systems are more complex--the electrical grid is interconnected, and thus outages or bugs at one company could affect others--analysts and industry insiders are confident most lights will stay on as revelers ring in the new year.
"There could be isolated and minor power outages, but it'll be fixed in minutes or hours. It's not like they're going to be out of power for days and days," Marcoccio said. "The only areas where we see some lagging is where maybe a power company is owned by a small town."
Marcoccio pointed to the Rockies and the extreme Northwest as isolated areas that might be more likely to face brief outages.
Like analysts, the electric industry also believes it is ready for the date change.
A mid-November report to the Department of Energy by the North American Electric Reliability Council, a non-profit group charged with maintaining the integrity of the nation's power supply, showed the majority of public and private power plants, as well as all nuclear power plants, are Y2K compliant.
"I don't think electric utilities are worried about a millennium bug problem," said Madalyn Cafruny, a spokeswoman for the American Public Power Association, a trade group representing 2,000 U.S. city-owned electric utilities. However, Cafruny warned against associating harsh weather-related blackouts with Y2K problems.
"I'd worry more about the weather New Year's Eve than I would about computer problems in terms of the power going out," IDC's Gantz said.
Of all the local infrastructure systems that might be affected by the millennium bug, water systems may be the most critical for health and sanitation reasons, not to mention fire-fighting purposes. But drinking water and wastewater systems could be the least prepared, according to one recent study.
A December joint report by the Center for Y2K & Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council, citing statistics from various national water and sewage associations, showed that between 20 percent and 45 percent of drinking water systems were ready for the millennium as of June, while just 4 percent of wastewater facilities were fully Y2K compliant as of July.
"There are serious doubts that the 55,000 drinking water utilities and the 16,000 publicly owned wastewater facilities in the United States will be prepared for Y2K," according to the report.
The report found that drinking water systems could lose water pressure, suffer from inadequate treatment, or possibly release treatment chemicals such as chlorine, while the potential exists for wastewater facilities to accidentally release untreated sewage into streets, basements and sources of drinking water.
However, analysts who have studied the Y2K phenomenon doubt there will be many problems, particularly with water and sewage systems. Water, sewage, and gas and oil systems have few computer systems that could fail--and even then those failures would be unlikely to affect service, they said.
"Water is fine. Sewage is in very good shape," Marcoccio said, dismissing many of the more apocalyptic studies.
"I think the alarmist groups did us some good by getting people to move forward [with Y2K preparations]," he said.
Analysts believe the largest headaches for utilities and similar companies will be with their internal operations, such as billing systems and communications services. The North American Electric Reliability Council's recent report indicated the reliability of voice and data communications systems as a potential trouble spot for some power companies.
Communications industry executives are confident their networks are ready. However, phone companies have asked well-wishers to avoid calling at midnight to keep phone systems from becoming overloaded. "If too many people begin calling at the same time, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," IDC's Gantz said.
Although most experts believe the nation's utilities are ready for 2000, no one can completely forecast all the potential problems. Many groups are advocating that people stockpile one gallon of fresh water per person for several days as a precaution.
"We're trying to tell the American public to be prepared for any type of disaster, because a disaster can happen anytime, anywhere," said Darren Irby, a spokesman for the American Red Cross, a charitable disaster relief organization. "Clearly we don't know what is going to happen."