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Silicon Crisis? How Info Tech Poses Risk for Electric Restructuring

Fortnightly Magazine - November 1 1998

by adding specialized, built-in, hard-wired software (often called "firmware") to these simpler, mass-produced components. Embedded computers are now found in a vast number of consumer and industrial products, including equipment used in electric power generation, transmission, and distribution systems.

By all accounts, the electric power industry has started late in addressing its Year 2000 problem. The attention of the regulatory agencies has lagged as well. The FERC has not addressed the issue (although the Department of Energy recently took the lead in asking NERC to address the issue of overall grid reliability). By August 1998, according to the web site of the National Regulatory Research Institute, only 15 states had initiated efforts to address the Year 2000 issue within their jurisdictions. A notable exception has been the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has issued an order requiring nuclear plant operators to demonstrate Year 2000 readiness.

What will happen on and after Jan. 1, 2000? Nobody knows. There are positive factors and negative factors, and nobody knows how they will be resolved. Electric power systems operated successfully for decades before the invention of the computer. Computer-based control centers contribute improved efficiency, reduced cost, improved environmental performance, and improved response to potential contingencies. However, it may be possible to operate the power grid using techniques from many years ago. If such operation could be organized, it would be more expensive, less efficient, more labor intensive, more polluting, and possibly more fragile, but it would keep the lights on.

Similarly, not all power system equipment contains embedded computers. According to reports, the safety-critical systems of most nuclear plants use older analog technology that is immune to the Year 2000 problem, although there are other important systems that have Year 2000 exposure. One approach under consideration is to make maximum use of power plants that have older control technology. This does not address the impact of embedded computers in transmission and distribution equipment, but if enough such plants could be found they could possibly ensure an adequate supply of generation capacity.

Clearly, the answers to these questions will not be known in the near term. Unfortunately, they may not be known even after Jan. 1, 2000. There are many equipment failure modes other than failure at the Year 2000 date rollover. For example, some equipment does not fail at the date rollover itself, but if it is later turned off it can not be restarted without causing problems.

Solution of the Year 2000 problem is arguably the most complex and massive computer project that can be performed by any organization. In many cases the Year 2000 problem will result in a Death March computer project. Furthermore, in the electric power industry many of the people who will be needed for the Year 2000 problem are exactly the same people who have been feverishly working to prepare for the restructuring. Anyone familiar with the expertise needed for power system operations will immediately recognize that the skills needed for addressing Year 2000 grid operations are the same skills that are needed for resolve the technical questions of grid operation