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News Analysis

Fortnightly Magazine - November 1 1998

upstream the component, the more serious the problem, according to NERC. As the report notes, "there are approximately 200 bulk electric control centers in North America. Computer systems within these control centers use complex algorithms to manage the operations of transmission facilities and to dispatch generating units. At any moment in time, a percentage of generating units may be on automatic control for ¼ following load and regulating interconnection frequency."

By contrast, said NERC, substations contain most of the transmission and distribution system protection relays ¼ Many devices and relays in a substation are electromechanical (not digitally controlled)."

Questions arose concerning the role that regulators would play, especially since the Y2K efforts are voluntary industry projects, technically outside the jurisdiction of the FERC. One at the FERC meeting asked whether the commission might offer help indirectly, such as delaying its requirement to require natural gas pipelines to install new bulletin boards with standardized EDI communications protocols at least until the end of the Y2K conversion process. No one at the conference answered that question. However, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission decided on August 27 to declare a moratorium on the implementation of any new SEC rules requiring major computer reprogramming during the period of June 1, 1999, through March 31, 2000, to free up labor for work on the Y2K problem. (See, concept/33-7568.htm.)

Unseen Obstacles, Benefits

The specter noncompliant microprocessors embedded in digital equipment of all types has emerged as a major obstacle to achieving Y2K compliance.

According to Kendra Martin, manager of electronic commerce and information technology at the American Petroleum Institute, some of the individual companies in her organization started working on Y2K at least three years ago, and have now "migrated to the problem of embedded microprocessors."

The NERC report of September 17 explains the problem with embedded chips:

"Y2K anomalies could lead to the malfunction of software programs on mainframe computers ¼ but of greater concern, both in the electric industry and elsewhere, is the pervasiveness of the Y2K bug in embedded chips.

"In the electric industry, these chips are used in communications and numerous power system device controllers. Electronic chips are generally mass-produced without knowing the ultimate application of the chip. A single circuit board can have 20-50 of these chips from various manufacturers. Because of the diversity of chip suppliers, one vendor may use a different mix of chips even within devices labeled with the same name, model number, and year ¼ The difficulty is in identifying all these devices."

Adds Gary Gardner, chief information technology officer at the American Gas Association: "Embedded processors is the new key issue. Fixing that is vary labor-intensive. It's not rocket science, it's just the magnitude of the problem."

Balancing out the problem of embedded chips is the fact that much of the equipment used by distribution functions or serving transmission substation and transformer functions is not digital, and may need no Y2K fix. As the NERC report explains, "Analog electronic equipment generally monitors voltage, current, or frequency and had little or no need for a date function.