Utilities pose biggest worldwide Y2K threat
May 28, 1999
by Nancy Weil
(IDG) -- Electrical power losses may create more havoc than other year 2000-based failures, although in developed countries most outages may be localized and may not last long, according to Y2K reports and Y2K authorities worldwide.
People depend more worldwide on a ready supply of electricity than on any other resource. And sustained power losses could affect local food supplies, medical care, the ability to get money from banks, financial market transactions, fresh water, access to accurate information, manufacturing, and transportation, among other industry segments.
The interconnected nature of power and other utilities was underscored in a recent year 2000 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce International Trade Administration.
"The ripple effects of Y2K-caused breakdowns in one part of the interconnected transmission grid could cause failures elsewhere down the line," the report said. "Utilities have a large number of embedded chips in their equipment and facilities, some of which are susceptible to Y2K mishaps, but which are time-consuming and costly to locate and test."
Embedded chips had been of much greater concern when governments and companies first began tackling the Y2K problem months ago. Such chips are part of embedded systems, which control, monitor, or aid in the operation of machines and factories.
All embedded systems contain microprocessors, and some chips are date sensitive. Like PCs, equipment used in manufacturing and industries such as chemical and oil production may have date-sensitive clocks.
Y2K-related tests have found that many mission-critical computer systems in government and industry do not contain date-sensitive chips that could cause major failures. For example, a survey by the American Petroleum Institute found that embedded chips are not a significant problem for the U.S. gas and oil industries.
"We're not finding the embedded chip failures that we thought we had," said Ron Quiggens, chairman of the API Year 2000 Task Force and director of the year 2000 program at Shell Services.
Fuel shortages a concern
But there will be Y2K problems in the utility industry. The recent ITA report raises the specter of the energy crisis of the mid-1970s to indicate that "major long-term disruptions in fuel supplies can have serious economic implications," because of the reliance of various regions on each other.
As of 1996, Saudi Arabia provided the world with 19 percent of its crude oil. Russia, which is considered to be particularly vulnerable to the year 2000 problem because of a lack of preparedness, supplied 37 percent of the natural gas and Australia 30 percent of hard coal. In the U.S., more than 65 percent of electric power is generated by coal and gas, the report noted.
Larger power suppliers in developed nations are said to be mostly prepared for the date rollover, but some officials remain worried about how the industry overall will cope with the year 2000 computer problem.
"We are not 100 percent happy with the energy sector," said Michael Leibrandt, a year 2000 project team member at the Federal Ministry of Economics in Germany said of that nation's utilities industry. Power distribution networks are the chief concern because embedded chips have not been thoroughly tested, he indicated.
Surveys from developed countries suggest that disruptions, if they do occur, probably will be minor and limited geographically.
Conversely, developing nations, including much of Africa and parts of South America, are viewed as particularly at risk. But utility service outages are a standard part of life in such nations and so it may be impossible to tell, at least at first, whether outages near the first of the new year are related to the year 2000 computer glitch or just a normal daily event.
Russia is ill-prepared
One troubling issue is how Soviet-era nuclear power plants in Russia and elsewhere will fare. The lone operating reactor at the Chornobyl power plant, for instance, is said to be vulnerable to year 2000 problems, raising the possibility of a repeat of the disaster caused in 1986 when the Unit 4 reactor there exploded during testing of the turbine-generator system. (Chornobyl is the Ukraine's preferred anglicization of the city known during the Soviet era as Chernobyl, a name commonly associated now with nuclear disaster.)
Officials outside of Russia are grappling to assess the likelihood of the year 2000 computer problem causing turmoil at Chornobyl and other Soviet-designed nuclear power plants. Russian officials have been slow to accept outside help, according to a written statement in February from General John Gordon, deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, to the Government Readiness Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.
The overall attitude among top Russian officials, as conveyed by U.S. and European authorities, has been blase. The reluctance could bode poorly for Europe's natural gas supply as well, particularly given that Russia's perpetual political turmoil seems to supersede concerns over year 2000 computer issues.
"Russia's Gazprom Natural Gas Pipeline network, which supplies over one-third of Europe's natural gas, also is susceptible to potential Y2K outages," Gordon said in his statement, whose sentiments were repeated in other various written statements from U.S. intelligence officials. "Russian's ability to transport and export natural gas could be interrupted in midwinter."
The water you drink
Less is known about how supplies of fresh water will be affected by the year 2000 computer problem
An April assessment from the U.S. Government Accounting Office, an independent watchdog agency, found that "insufficient information is available to assess and manage year 2000 efforts in the water sector, and little additional information is expected under the current regulatory framework." The report did go on to note that large drinking water and public wastewater facilities, serving most of the U.S. population, are generally expected to manage well, with smaller facilities representing the largest unknowns.
Contingency plans will be key, various reports have observed, but may not yet be ready.
For instance, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which provides water and sewer services to 61 communities in the metropolitan Boston area, plans to have backup diesel power generation at all of the critical pumping facilities and fuel in storage, said Greg DeFronzo, MIS director of the authority.
"We will have a barge off of Deer Island [in Massachusetts Bay] that will have 650,000 gallons of diesel," he said. "That will allow us to be self-sustaining for about a 14-day period."
With any luck, that will be more than enough.
Rebecca Sykes, Juan Carlos Perez, Jana Sanchez, Mary Lisbeth D'Amico, Kristi Essick, Clare Haney, David Legard, Michael Drexler, and Rob Guth from IDG News Service, Carlos de la Iglesia of Computerworld Spain, Tanya Gracheva of Computerworld Russia, Katalin Zimanyi of Computerworld Hungary, and Torben Simonsen of Computerworld Denmark contributed to this report, which also included information from Computerworld publications in Australia, Hong Kong, and the Philippines and IDG News Service files.
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