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Electrical Power Grid & Y2K

By Daniel Fisher


Usa at night as viewed from space.

"Electric power is the critical utility. After more than about three days (of failure) everything just folds up. Trains, heat, refrigeration, water supplies all go. We'd be straight back to 18th and 19th century, and it would take 20 years to regain the lost economic capability," Ross Anderson; Cambridge University's Computer Laboratory.

"Every test I have seen done on an electrical power plant has caused it to shut down. Period. I know of no plant or facility investigated to this date that has passed without Y2K problems" David Hall embedded-systems consultant at Cara Corporation.

"I am convinced there is a 100% chance that a major portion of the domestic electrical infrastructure will be lost as a result of the Year 2000 computer and embedded systems problem." ... Rick Cowles power industry/y2k expert.

"If the year 2000 were to come tommorow, there is a 100% chance the power grid would collapse." ....Senator Bob Bennet who found in a July 1998 investigation that 8 out of 10 power plants haven't even completed assessment (5% of a y2k project)

The Power Grid is obviously the most critical system modern civilization requires for survival. It is also threatened with extended partial or complete shutdown by y2k. All talk of getting company XYZ's computers compliant are irrelavent until the power is flowing and restored, as only then will we have to deal with expected y2k problems of society. Failure of the grid need not be direct nor immediate; Major breaks in the supply chain of power companies' suppliers such as coal, railroads, manufacturingor the banking system pose serious long-term y2k risks as well.

There are 7800 Power generating and distribution organizations in the U.S. of which, as of December 1998, none were even close to y2k compliant.

Nuclear plants provide around 20%, and coal around 40% of the nation's electricity. Both nuclear, coal (and hydro) plants are infected with (y2k defective) embedded systems which control power production and transmission . These plants are all tied into a national and regional "grid" (by Federal law). This grid is an automated, networked and highly interdependent system. Every participant in the grid must be Y2K compliant if the system is to be compliant, as these plants require reliable, time-sensitive, computerized exchange of information with each other to contorl real-time calcalation of energy levels. This is done by means of the telecommunication system. If the grid is to remain viable, telecomm must also remain functional in order for this constant transfer of information between plants to occur, and will be suffering its own serious y2k problems which could could cause disatrous disruptions and automatic plant shut-downs throughout the grid.

The grid normally operates with a strategically safe 20-30% surplus; this means that a deficit of more than 20-30% could cause the system to be stressed to the point of overload, and could pull the rest of the grid down with it.

Large coal powered electrical generating plants rely on the railroad system to deliver an average of 3 large trainloads of coal per day. This sector may also fail in 2000 from its comuterized switching and routing problems or suppliers which could create serious y2k disruptions which would hamper or completly halt delivery depleteing reserves within a month. This would put 40% of the grid at risk, and would probably destroy it if shortages are widespread.

Nuclear generating plants that do not meet y2k compliance (probably all) may be directed to be shut down for safety reasons, putting another 20% of the grid at risk. Much of the Eastern U.S. gets its power from nuclear plants. How is this region going to keep power up if these plants go down? The problem is that it takes at least 4 months to cool down a plant, and this requires electricity. For this reason we could begin to see forced shut-downs as early as this July. However, for political reasons this will probably not occur.

Like the regional power outage of the Northeast in the 1965 , and the recent outage of the Northwest, (caused by faulty transmission lines in Oregon..or was it Idaho?) power failures occur in a cascading manner. By causing unexpected bursts, shortages, miscalculations and other bugs throughout the system, it only takes a minor communication error or weak link to shut down other-wise functioning plants over a large regional area. The obvious problem in 2000, then, is a massive rolling blackout caused by failures of (y2k defective) plants across much of the continent, all at the same time and throughout 2000. There is no guarantee that it'll go down, but there is none that it will stay up either.

If the grid goes down for the count, it will be a monumental task to get it all restored in a timely manner, as all other sectors of the economy that supply the grid will also be suffering catastrophic failures as well. When large numbers of grid participants fail, they must draw power from the remaining grid to reboot their systems as it takes electricity to make electricity.. This takes up to six times normal power. (it is also possible to do a "black grid restart")

Subjective assessment:
Most probable scenario:

Martial law implemented; possible nationalization of electrical utilities and/or transportation industry. Several weeks of massive local and regional outages, brown-outs, 'dirty power' and rationing of electricity with concerted, full-scale national effort to restore. Grid possibly manually disconnected into smaller regions with cities given rationing priority; rural areas and certain sectors of the country without power for an extended period. (here is a different explanation ). Becomes largely stabilized after 3-4 weeks or so.

Does this mean we are out of the woods yet? No, this is just the beginning. At the minimum expect further power outages and brown-outs and disruptions throughout the next 6 months --if we are lucky. We then have to deal with trains that may no longer be delivering enough coal to supply most power plants when there are difficulties with computerized switching. These shortages could begin after 30 days when stockpiles run down. Eventually there may also be petroleum shortages through failures of the transportation industry, which will cut back availability of fuel for trains to run. Then we will have to eventually deal with a severely contracting economy and division of labor occuring with a collapsing banking system which would eliminate its ability to pay suppliers, employees. Then power companies would have to deal with bankrupting suppliers and manufacturers that enable it to keep operations running. In essence, it is the eventual systemic failure of modern industrial society through the domino effect that threatens a long term grid failure.

If we fail to succeed in these efforts of keeping up the grid, power companies, suppliers and all portions which make this sector operational for 6-8 consecutive weeks or so despite these efforts, we can assume it may not go back up due to destruction of capital base and deterioration of physical infrastructure. It can then be assumed that modern civilization would collapse.

Futher complicating the reliability of the power grid is the peak in geo-magnetic activity which will accompany the year 2000 solar sunspot peak, which could cause large scale blackouts .

A must-visit site devoted to y2k and the power grid:

Check out Roliegh Martin's site on The Year 2000 Paul Revere Community Alert Campaign on the Y2k Threat to Core Infrastructures

See also Gary North: Power Grid catagory for further insight and updates.

Listed Here are various articles about how y2k could affect the nation's electric power.

August 4,,1999HERC reports that 99% of power companies are compliant...nothing to worry about--NOT!!! Click link to read analysis.

July 8,1999 NERC Exposed: More interested in image/preventing panic than true compliancy of power industry.

May 13,1999 Weiss findings indicate :

Among the 61 electric and gas utilities receiving a Weiss Y2K Rating, 69% received "below average" or "low" Y2K grades, while only 5% received "high" ratings

Mar 10, 1999 Idaho Power has only completed 20% of its testing on embedded chips and spent $700,000 of its allocated $5,300,000 y2k budget as filed to the SEC in the latest 1998 quarter ending Sept 30,1998 SEC filing

Feb 13, 1999 Tamara Orbegozo , CEO of Year 2000 Specialists, states, "When you step back and see the missed deadlines and the amount of work still to be done before January 1st, it becomes immediately evident that a radical change in strategy is necessary. For example, PSE&G, the largest power utility in New Jersey, had only 15% of their systems repaired as of the end of December, and it took them a year to do that. At this rate, their systems won't be compliant until 2004. A change in approach is absolutely necessary for companies, governments, and agencies finding themselves in this position."

Feb 5, 1999Bonnie Camp's professional analysis Of the overly-optimistic NREC report: Seventeen percent of the utilities which responded to the NERC November survey estimate they have completed 10% or less of their fixing and testing of critical systems. 16 utilities have not done any remediation or testing yet. Are they at the starting line or still trying to get to the field? Just 34%, or one-third of the utilities have completed more than 50% of critical systems remediation and testing. Two thirds (66%) have completed 50% or less of their remediation for critical systems.

Jan 22,1998 SEC Filings say this: A review of financial filings conducted by Proma Creative Solutions Ltd. reveals that, with 400 days remaining until the year 2000, only 23% of critical systems of the top 70 "Fortune 1000" listed electricity companies have been tested and certified as Y2K compliant.

(so much for the positive sounding NREC report..)

Jan 15,1999 PR fluffed NERC report gives misleadingly optimistic tone. Leaves out an important fact: NEI statement said the "majority of America's 103 nuclear power plants" still have not finished the assessment stage to determine which of their computer systems will be affected by the Year 2000 problem.

Specifically, NEI said most of the plants "have nearly completed the detailed assessments needed to pinpoint computer systems that might be affected by Y2K issues."

Dec 27,1998Third quarter 1998 filings from the Security Exchange Commission found of those which did report specific cost estimates, just over 32% of the total utility SEC filers had spent 25% or LESS of their estimated total project costs. Nearly 45% of the total had spent one-third or less of total estimated costs. Those utility filers which have spent half or more of their estimated total Y2K costs comprise only 11% of the total. "Are there any compliant utilities?" is "No," at least not for those required to file with the SEC.

Dec 5,1998, Even if Wall Street's computers are Y2K OK, what happens if the electricity dies and the phones fail? Stephen Malphrus, a Federal Reserve Board official, said he lost sleep at night over "these incredible interdependencies in the infrastructure."

Nov 23,1998 Security Exchange Commission has found that the power company Conectiv has made progress on its billing systems, but is 0% compliant on power production:

Business systems: inventory & assessment, 95%; corrective action, 70%; testing & compliance, 60%

Power production: inventory & assessment, 90%; corrective action, 0%; testing & compliance, 0%

Nov 21,1998United Utilities in 2000 bug chaos alert North-west energy and water supplier United Utilities today became the first major company in its sector to spell out the stark truth about the millennium bug, warning that there is "a risk of failure" on the big night.

July 16,1998Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology ProblemThere are several major Utility companies that have not even placed one line of compliant computer code into a Year 2000 production environment or have a complete documented understanding of a process that will allow them to implement a lot of computer code in the shortest period time. Many of these companies have over 25 million lines of code to be made compliant. At this point in time they should have implemented 60% of their application into a Year 2000 production environment. If history is a predictor of the future, it will take approximately 10 - 15 months, for a committed company, to make 10 million lines of mainframe code Year 2000 compliant. (in other words, too late)

Aug 23,1998 "The electric system is such a highly interdependent network and so vital to the security and well-being of the nation, that there is very little margin for error or miscalculation"

June 25,1998 Lights Out? No one in the nuclear power industry wants to talk publicly about the worst that could happen come midnight Dec. 31, 1999, when the clocks in the thousands of technical systems deep within the nation's 110 nuclear power plants roll over to the year 2000.

June 19,1998 Ed Yourdon (Senior Mainframe Programmer : on y2k electricity, nukes, government agencies, banking.

June 12,1998 Will Lights Go Out In Year 2000? "We're no longer at the point of asking whether or not there will be any power disruptions, but we are now forced to ask how severe the disruptions are going to be," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.

June 12,1998 Senator Bob Bennet; warned that he felt there was ?a 100 percent chance? the U.S. power grid would collapse if today were Jan. 1, 2000. Because the date is 18 months away, he estimated the chance of collapse on that date is 40 percent - not as high, but still significant.

Only two of the 10 utilities had finished an assessment of their automated systems, which is an early step in the preparation process, Bennett said. ``One firm did not even know how many lines of computer code it had,'' he said, and none had completed a Year 2000 contingency plan.

June 12,1998 Utilities: Consumers left in the dark? Biggest worry: Because electric utilities share the power lines that connect to customers, they are dependent on each other. The utility that does a sloppy job coping with Year 2000 fixes can ruin the best efforts of a diligent power producer. The resulting power-grid problem could lead to blackouts.

June 12,1998 Year 2000 bug seen as huge challenge to power grid (Reuters) - All the talk of coaxing computers to clear the Millennium hurdle assumes there will still be electricity to run them. Perhaps not.

June 11,1998 Y2K Blackout? "The odds are overwhelming that there will be failures in some places, " says software engineer Roleigh Martin. "The question for every individual is, 'Will it be my area?'"

June 6,1998 Senate Y2K czar warns about possible blackouts in Year 2000 The Year 2000 problem could cause electrical brownouts and blackouts nationwide, Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) said today.

May 27,1998 Utilities still in the dark Companies underestimating effects of millennium bug

May 25,1998 y2k Threatens Power Grid Vulnerability of power grid in winter.

May 25,1998 Power Plant Panic? Lawmakers have concluded power companies won't be year 2000 compliant.

May 25,1998 Not everyone will be ready Utilities find problem goes beyond computers, software.

May 21,1998 10% of power plants to be shut down Utilities' systems aren't likely to be fixed by 2000.

May 16,1998 How vulnerable? "The magnitude of the potential Year 2000 problem in the regulated energy industries is not yet known,"

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