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Electric Utilities Get High Marks in Y2K Test

September 13, 1999
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Electric Utilities Get High Marks in Y2K Test

The lights didn't go out in Georgia or anywhere else in North America last week during an industry-wide testing of electric utility systems for potential computer glitches that could mar the transition to the new millennium, according to officials with the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC).

"It went exceedingly well," said Ron Niebo, assistant to the president of NERC, which coordinated the exercise. "Everybody hoped that it would run well, but we anticipated there were going to be certain problems with the 9/9/99 number. Those never materialized. We expected that there might be some extremely minor distribution-type...and communications problems. Those are all resolved. It went very well. We can only go up from here."

He estimated that about 15,000 personnel at 400-500 electric utilities in the United States, Canada and Mexico participated in the dress rehearsal for the rollover to the new millennium. Niebo said most of the participating utilities owned transmission and generation assets that are critical to maintaining the reliability of the grid.

During the drill, which began last Wednesday morning (Sept. 8) and ended after midnight, utilities conducted a battery of tests, which included simulating the loss of energy management systems, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems and data communications; testing back-up control centers; and reviewing implementation plans for emergencies, Niebo said.

Utilities closely monitored their systems as Sept. 8 rolled over to Sept. 9, 1999 at midnight. The date (the ninth day of the ninth month of '99) was considered a pre-Y2K test date by some computer experts because the older mainframe computers used 9999 to mark the end of a program or file, and then would stop processing. But none of the participating electric utilities reported any rollover-related problems.

The success of the exercise seems to have reduced the utility industry's fears that some older computers may interpret "00" as 1900 instead of 2000 on Jan. 1, causing havoc to their transmission and generation operations.

"The 9/9/99 drill provided us with an opportunity to assess our readiness with just over 100 days left until the Year 2000," said Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who participated in a midnight drill at the department's Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) facility in Vancouver, WA. "While the nationwide test went smoothly and contingency plans, including back-up communications systems, appeared in order, it is imperative that the utility sector continues to be diligent in [its] testing."

The latest test was an improvement over the preliminary drill that occurred last April, which turned up "some problem areas," Niebo said. In the months ahead, there will be some testing at individual electric utilities, but there won't be any more industry-wide tests, he noted. "The next big test will be the actual Y2K."

Duke Energy used the opportunity to also conduct a Y2K drill of its other business units, including gas pipelines (Texas Eastern Transmission and Algonquin Gas Transmission), national and international units, and energy trading and marketing. A company spokeswoman said "no problems" had been detected during the Thursday exercise.

On the electric side, the drill "was a good dress rehearsal" for Duke Power, said Richard J. Osborne, executive vice president and corporate sponsor of Duke Energy's Year 2000 Readiness Program. "We didn't find major flaws in our response plans, but we did identify some areas for improvement." He said the business units plan to do detailed evaluations of their exercise results, as well as carry out additional drills in the remaining months leading up to the transition.

"The rehearsal was valuable in that it allowed us to practice the contingency plans in a realistic fashion," said Harry L. Terhune, assistant executive director of the Mid-America Interconnected Network (MAIN), whose member utilities serve the Midwest. "The experience will be used to develop additional training and refine procedures in the plans to assure reliability."

During the drill, he noted electric system operators in the Midwest region were in contact and shared data with each other from 10:30 a.m. Wednesday to about 2 a.m. Thursday, simulating the New Year's rollover.

Susan Parker

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