Y2K Scare: About the Millennium Bug

From city services to the electrical grid, this is a manual for sensible Y2K planning in the few months left before the year 2000.
By Marguerite Lamb
August/September 1999
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What will happen to the phone lines during Y2K? How about the grid? Will emergency services be overwhlmed? We have the breakdown.
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We've all heard the Y2K predictions: The grid will go down. Banks will close. Oil refineries will fail. Grocery store shelves will lay bare, faucets will spout out unuseable water, plumbing will revert to medieval standards as wastewater systems grind to a halt. The result will be chaos in the streets, economic ruin, total societal collapse, the end of the world as we know it. And all this because of that most techno-pestilent of pests—the millennium bug.

Okay, now take a deep breath. Take another if you need it. You may recall that last December we predicted the sky is likely to stay right where it is. That's our story and we're sticking with it.

A Y2K Scare Briefing

But that's not to say Y2K is not presenting some very real and serious challenges. In March, MOTHER EARTH NEWS attended a conference in New York, where John Koskinen, chair of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, predicted that the national infrastructure—including the power grid, telecommunications, banking, transportation and government—would be ready to field most anything Y2K might hurl its way. He did, however, express concern about the level of preparedness among small, local utilities. But his biggest worry seemed to be the possibility of an overwrought response on the part of the American people. "Overreaction by the general public will result in a self-fulfilling prophecy," he warned, suggesting that the hoarding of food, fuel and money by a couple hundred million Americans could prove more disastrous to the country than any potential computer glitches.

But what's a citizen to do? While it's comforting to know that the man overseeing the nation's Y2K readiness efforts is not anticipating a national meltdown, it's disconcerting to hear him say, as he did at the conference, "We are concerned about ... every local power company [and] the same thing goes for telecommunications."

The conundrum was not lost on Koskinen. "We can provide national reassurances," he noted. "But everybody still wants to know: What about me? What about my bank? What about my power company? What about my telephone company? What about my local government?''

Y2K has thus become (like all of politics) local, making it our challenge to present you—scattered though you are in all 50 states—with the strategies you need to investigate the risks you may face, wherever you are, as we enter the new millennium.

To this end, we have chosen to examine one small town, Silver City, New Mexico (population 12,500), as a microcosm of the larger Y2K picture. What follows are the results of our inquiries, placed in a national context wherever possible. We trust you will find many of your concerns addressed. For those that remain, let our investigation serve as a road map in your own search for Y2K answers.

The Fuels: Natural Gas

"It is very unlikely that there will be a disruption in gas supply—even if there is a disruption in electrical service," says Power Company of New Mexico (PNM) spokesman Larry Smith. Natural gas production and distribution is, says Smith, a highly mechanical process, with little real dependence on electronic automation. And since manual overrides are possible even where automation does exist, all PNM stations will be manned come December 31—just in case.

While Smith's words should come as a comfort to the 8,000 Silver City households that heat with natural gas, his assurances are hardly a blanket guarantee. PNM has no natural gas production capabilities and thus is wholly dependent on outside suppliers. Asked who PNM's main vendors are, Smith's response can best be described as vague: "We buy on a contractual basis; it changes from week to week." Fair enough. But that left us to look at the natural gas industry at large.

"We have a high degree of confidence that natural gas utilities will be ready and able to deliver natural gas on and after January 1," says Peggy Laramie, spokeswoman for the American Gas Association (AGA). In February, the AGA, together with the American Petroleum Institute (API), released the results of a joint survey showing that 94% of U.S. natural gas and oil companies expect to be Y2K ready by September 30, 1999.

That gas is in such good shape may in part be attributed to its relatively limited exposure to Y2K troubles. International dependencies are not a big factor, since all but 14% of the natural gas consumed here is also produced here, and the bulk of what we do import comes from our immediate neighbor to the north, Canada. (Compare this to oil later in this article.)

And, echoing Smith, Laramie points out that the natural gas chain is not particularly high-tech—a fact that, were it better known, she says, might calm some Y2K jitters.

"Many of the smaller, municipal gas companies are not at all automated, so they are not going to have Y2K problems, at least not with gas distribution," says Laramie. Large companies serving millions of accounts are, she admits, more likely to be automated in some way. But even here, she says, computers are not likely to send the system crashing. "For safety reasons, there are manual [overrides] all along the way."

But what about that ultimate Y2K equalizer: the grid? Is Smith being overly optimistic when he promises natural gas—with or without power? Not according to Laramie. The industry does rely on compressors to boost the flow of natural gas from, for example, the Gulf of Mexico to New York or Boston. And some of these compressors are electrically powered. "But," says Laramie, "even if there were a power failure, there is so much pressure built up in the interstate pipelines, that the gas will keep moving—just a bit more slowly."

The Fuels: Petroleum

While few if any Silver City residents heat with oil, most above the age of 16 drive. Surely by now they (and we) have run across doomsayers foretelling a repeat of the 1970s oil and gasoline crises. But how likely is history to repeat itself in response to the Y2K scare?

Domestic oil facilities are reportedly on track (this according to the aforementioned AGA/API report). Thus, most potential Y2K threats to U.S. oil supplies can be traced to our heavy dependence on foreign sources. In 1998, we imported 56% (roughly 10.4 million barrels per day) of our crude oil, more than half of this from four key providers: Venezuela (16.2%), Canada (15.2%), Saudi Arabia (14.2%) and Mexico (12.9%). Rounding out our top-ten suppliers were Nigeria, Angola, Iraq, Colombia, the Virgin Islands and Algeria. Without indicting any one nation specifically, Kendra Martin, director of API's Year 2000 Program, admits "some countries ... are in the red. They simply are not going to have an electric grid."

The Department of Energy (DOE) reported in February that it expects the big four oil providers to be Y2K compliant by the end of the year. Details are sketchier on the others. Is the nation prepared to go without supplies from even its minor importers?

Yes, says Martin, noting that the months it takes for petrol to go from well field to gas tank means shortages aren't felt immediately at the pump The industry has time to locate other sources if production fails in any one country or location.

"Two years ago, a bomb hit a pipeline in Iraq, taking it down for a week and removing nearly a million barrels a day from the world's oil supply. But these are not things that the public notices," says Martin. "We have the ability to recover before these kinds of situations become an issue."

But how do such interruptions impact cost? A stoppage has to be "fairly significant" before it will affect oil prices, says Martin. A recent DOE report, she says, indicates that "as a rough rule of thumb, a one million barrel per day loss of supply—that is uncompensated for by an increase in production elsewhere and that continues for a year—could cause world oil prices to rise by roughly 7 to 12 cents a gallon at the pump." Now, a million barrels a day ain't much (remember that Iraqi pipeline), but since OPEC nations are currently producing well below capacity (an agreement meant to bolster prices), worldwide production, says Martin, "could very easily be ratcheted up."

If, given all of the above, you are still inclined to stockpile gasoline, maybe it will help to know that while embedded chips and software do play a role in most every stage of petrol production and distribution, this technology is not proving particularly mission-critical. Says Martin, "We are not finding things that would cause production or environmental or safety problems. We haven't found anything which indicates to us that, even if someone were not working on the problem, they would experience significant work stoppage problems."

Still worried? Well, perhaps you'll take comfort in the fact that, following the 1973 World Oil Crisis, the U.S. established a strategic petroleum reserve (SPR). Some 561 million barrels of crude oil (the equivalent of about 54 days worth of imports) are currently sitting in salt caverns in Louisiana and Texas. In February, DOE announced it will add another 28 million barrels to the SPR at a rate of about 100,000 barrels a day. The official word is that this move is unrelated to Y2K. Martin says the government is simply taking advantage of cheap oil prices, while at the same time giving the industry-beleaguered of late by plummeting prices—a much-needed boost. Whatever the reason, it's nice to know it's there.

The Fuels: Propane

Some 2,500 Silver City households heat and power with propane and that number's likely to grow between now and the end of the year. Janie Turrieta, office manager at Griffin's Propane, the town's main provider, estimates her company has seen a 5% to 10% increase in sales of propane tanks as a result of Y2K. "We've also been selling a lot of propane refrigerators—something we didn't have much of a market for until the past year," she says. And if you're thinking of ordering a propane generator as a little Y2K backup, you're probably too late. "I ordered one in January and was told I might get it by August," says Turrieta.

But the question remains: will folks be able to count on a supply of propane come the New Year?

"If there's fuel out there," says Turrieta, "we'll get it." As a propane retailer, however, Griffin's is dependent upon producers who refine the product. Turrieta says her company has been in touch with all of its key suppliers concerning Y2K and has received mixed responses. On the plus side, Phillips Petroleum, which furnishes about half of Griffin's supply, is independent of the power grid, at least for refining purposes. "Phillips uses propane generators as their own power source," says Turrieta, "so provided they have enough product to get their generators going, they can refine enough product to keep their generators going and to keep up supplies."

Once refined, the propane is moved through underground pipelines to El Paso, where Griffin's loads it into trucks and hauls it to Silver City. Here again, Phillips has assured Griffin's that its distribution pipelines are Y2K ready. But what about the producers that account for the other half of Griffin's supply? "We've received the typical response," says Turrieta. "'We are making every effort to address this issue. We have completed the assessment phase.' It's the typical jargon you are going to hear from most utilities."

Turrieta says her skepticism is rooted less in doubts about individual companies and more in our society's enormous reliance on the electricity industry. "We are all so dependent on the power grid ... It's a huge interdependent glob."

For its part, Griffin's will be depending on Texas-New Mexico Power Company to keep its office running. But its "Bob Tail" delivery trucks run on propane, which means that, power or no, the company's fleet should be able to go wherever it needs to in order to pick up and deliver fuel to its customers.

Still, Turrieta says, customers should plan to have their tanks topped off well before December 31. "It's a good idea anyway," she says, "and it's a more efficient way for us to do business. If we're driving out to the boonies, it just makes sense for us to deliver 250 gallons, rather than 50 gallons."

Telephone Lines

Silver City phone service is provided by US West, a telecommunications giant serving some 25 million customers in 14 states. By April, 93% of its network switches (including Silver City's) had been upgraded, with the rest slated to be upgraded or replaced by July.

And by all accounts, US West's level of Y2K preparedness is being matched by most of the industry. In March, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Y2K communications sector report, predicting that up to 97% of the population will see few if any phone service disruptions.

Also encouraging are the results of a broad series of internet work tests. In 1996, the country's seven largest local carriers—US West, Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, BellSouth, Cincinnati Bell, GTE and SBC Communications—launched the Telco Year2000 Forum to facilitate information sharing and cooperative testing.

By last December, the Forum had conducted 1,914 interoperability tests on everything from basic calling to data transmission to emergency 911 services. The results? Only six of the tests showed Y2K anomalies, and of these, not one would have prevented calls from being completed.

That's good news, but not entirely unexpected given that call processing is not a particularly date-sensitive operation. "We did some early testing which showed that, even if we didn't upgrade anything, calls would still go through," says Donna DeMaria, communications manager for US West's Year 2000 Initiative. So why bother with the upgrades? The switches, says DeMaria, are highly sophisticated computers that in addition to routing calls, perform a number of date-sensitive administrative functions, including collecting data for billing, logging and monitoring the network.

That calls are not likely to be stopped cold by non-Y2K compliant switches may be most comforting to customers of some small and mid-sized phone companies. For while 97% of us can expect to hear ringing in the New Year, that still leaves 3% (more than 1 million households) wondering about dial tone. In its March report, the FCC warned: "Many of the small- and medium-size companies ... have completion deadlines dangerously close to millennium rollover, leaving little time for delays from vendors or remediation as a result of problems discovered in the testing process."

If your phone company's not among the big-seven named above, make some inquiries. If you don't like what you hear, it may be time to invest in a cell phone ... or a ham radio.

Water

Silver City's municipal water comes from two well fields, one located three miles southwest of town, the other roughly four miles due west. At each field, water is pumped from the ground into booster stations, where it is chlorinated (for purification), then "boosted" to elevated storage facilities nearer to town. From there, the water is gravity fed to an estimated 7,000 homes and businesses. (Much of the nation relies on similar, low-tech waterworks.)

Silver City's wells and booster stations are computer-operated, says the town's utilities director Robert Esqueda, but that's not his biggest worry when it comes to Y2K. "If automation fails, we can operate the system manually," he says, adding that his main concern is electrical power—or the potential lack thereof. "We're looking at securing large-scale generators to run our two or three biggest producing wells and the booster pumps."

Silver City also plans to start the New Year with its gravity feed water storage tanks filled to capacity. That's 7.25 million gallons of H2O enough to last the town about five days—longer if citizens ration their consumption.

Between the stored water and what the generators will pump in, Esqueda is confident he'll be able to keep a sufficient supply of water flowing. Municipal crews will be manning the wells and the booster stations during the rollover, ready to switch to manual overrides and generator power at the first sign of trouble.

Waste Water

Though Silver City's wastewater plant is automated, the plant's motor controls are not date-sensitive. Still, the plant is dependent on electricity and with thousands of people "contributing" to the same system, no disruption is brief enough. Plant foreman Stan Snider says simply, "We can't lose power."

To make sure it doesn't, the facility has backup generators at the ready, including a 1,000-gallon diesel unit with what Snider calls "a very dependable engine." Come New Year's Eve, workers will be standing by, prepared to go to emergency power if needed. And additional fuel will be stored onsite, in case an outage outlasts the generators' topped-to-capacity stores.

Emergency Services

December 31 will find Silver City's police force out in force. "We are going to have command posts, manned by fire and police, set up around the town," says Silver City town manager Tom Bates. "If our central dispatch goes down for whatever reason, we will have a police presence in the neighborhoods."

Surely, Silver City, like most towns in America, has faced the possibility of power disruptions without posting a cop on every corner. But unlike the typical hurricane or tornado which strikes with limited or no warning, forecasters have been tracking the Y2K storm for years. That's given honest folks time to head off the worst. It's also given less than honest folks time to plot what they might do under cover of a blackout. "There are some people who believe that December 31 is going to be the last day of the world," says Silver City information systems coordinator Tim Tow, who is overseeing municipal preparedness efforts. "Those are the kinds of people we have to worry about."

But discouraging millennial bandits isn't the only thing that'll have police taking to the streets during the rollover There's also concern about how Y2K may affect 911 service.

When people dial 911 (as some 300,000 do every day in the U.S.), they're counting on a sophisticated relay system to bring help to their doors. Y2K could complicate matters, since automation and electricity are key at most every step of the relay.

In the case of Silver City, for instance, 911 calls are routed through a network switch operated by US West, to an automated address look-up service in Boulder, Colorado, then back to local emergency responders. US West's DeMaria says she has "no worries" when it comes to the switch. The Boulder look-up service is handled by an independent contractor, she says, but adds, "We have been able to monitor their progress and conduct site visits ... We don't have any concerns about them."

As for local dispatch centers, it's up to each community to make sure its is up to speed, says DeMaria.

Frank Kenney, emergency management coordinator for Grant County (which includes Silver City), calls 911 a "priority." He says the county will have backup generators at the ready to safeguard dispatch services. But, he says, that's not going to do folks any good if their phones aren't working. "That's the whole idea of having emergency responders strategically posted throughout the county. People won't have to run far to get help."

Working with the Red Cross, the county will also establish emergency shelters in local schools, in case a power outage sends unprepared folks looking for warmth, food or medical assistance.

The Linchpin: The Grid

It all leads back to the grid. The petroleum industry will continue to drill and refine oil, provided there's electricity. You'll be able to fill your gas tank, so long as there's power at the pump. Natural gas will continue to flow, but if your furnace is (like most) electrically ignited, you'll be counting on the grid to stay warm. US West says its got backup generators to power its network switches, but what about the rest of the telecommunications industry?

The grid is the common denominator—and the biggest question mark when it comes to Y2K.

Silver City's electricity is delivered by Texas-New Mexico Power Company (TNMP), a utility serving some 227,000 customers in its two namesake states. Primarily a power distributor, TNMP has a single generating facility, located in and serving Texas. "Here in this neck of the woods, we import everything," says TNMP's Silver City-based regional engineering coordinator Keith Nix. "We don't actually produce any of the electricity we use."

While depending on outside generating sources means TNMP is not wholly in the driver's seat, Nix says there is an upside. "I am not dependent on one set of generation units for all of my electricity," he explains. "And the chances are pretty good that not every place I get electricity from on the grid is going to experience Y2K problems."

Nix's confidence is rooted in the interconnectedness of the grid (a feature that also carries certain risks, but more on that later). North America's electric systems are divided into four large Interconnections: the Eastern Interconnection, serving the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. and Canada; the Western Interconnection, serving the western third of the U.S. and Canada, plus a bit of Mexico; the ERCOT region, covering most of the state of Texas; and the Quebec Interconnection, serving Quebec. The electric systems within each Interconnection are networked such that if one generating plant experiences a problem, another can compensate. From the distributor's perspective, it doesn't much matter where the power comes from, so long as it gets enough to meet its load.

Having reviewed the progress and contingency plans of TNMP's providers, Nix says he's largely optimistic. Also setting his mind at relative ease is what he knows from having worked for four years at El Paso Electric, one of TNMP's key suppliers. "I've seen the condition of some of their generating stations and they are not as dependent on microprocessors as some of the more modem stations," says Nix. "A lot of these stations were built in the 1950s and '60s and are still using the older technology."

The same is true, says Nix, for the many distribution substations that still rely on old-style electromechanical devices. "We have found that our substations here in Silver City don't have a lot of exposure to microprocessor problems at all."

So can the town's residents count on a brightly fit New Year? "I can't guarantee anything for the rollover that I can't guarantee today," says Nix, adding that outages are always a possibility. "But I can tell you I do have a plan for those days." That includes having personnel ready in case manual overrides are necessary, a precaution being planned virtually industrywide.

"We will be placing people at strategic locations throughout our gas and electric systems," says Larry Smith of PNM, another of TNMP's key providers. With this and other provisions, prolonged power failures are "very unlikely," insists Smith, who describes a 24-hour outage prediction as "a worst-case scenario."

But this brings us back to the aforementioned risks of interconnection. PNM may be able to make reasonable assurances regarding its own facilities, but in North America, no utility is an island. The North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), which, at DOE's bidding is overseeing the Y2K efforts of electric utilities nationwide, has predicted "the industry will succeed or fail together in its readiness for Y2K." That's not a surprising take, given NERC's genesis. The not-for-profit group was established and charged with setting industry reliability standards following the great Northeast blackout of 1965.

That outage was triggered when a single transmission relay tripped at a generating station in Queenston, Ontario, knocking it off line and prompting a cascade of human and electromechanical errors that, within 12 minutes, had plunged 80,000 square miles into darkness. The affected area stretched from southeastern Canada to the tip of Cape Cod to New York City to the shores of the Great Lakes.

If one little relay can wreak havoc across an entire Interconnection, what hope do we have for power in the New Year? NERC's Director of Communications Gene Gorzelnik says the industry—which includes some 200 "backbone" generation and transmission facilities and approximately 30,000 distribution utilities—has worked diligently over the last three decades to increase the grid's resiliency. And during the last couple of years, it has made a concerted effort to prepare for Y2K. "Given all of the work that has been done, the chance of large-scale outages across major portions of North America are extremely remote," says Gorzelnik. "The likelihood is more of some limited outages of relatively short duration, should any happen at all." Internationally, power grids may be in far worse shape, and major foreign disruptions could affect local economies, but U.S. utilities by and large seem determined to keep the lights burning.

NERC's first-quarter 1999 report to DOE, issued on April 30, indicated that the electric power industry had completed more than 75% of its necessary remediation and testing and that "most facilities" would be Y2K ready by the industry's target date of June 30. That's the good news. The bad news is that as many as 10% of the organizations reporting to NERC were expected to miss the industry's deadline—and since we're all on the same grid ... well, you get the picture.

For it's part, NERC has pledged to "closely monitor the progress of any organizations completing Y2K readiness after the June 30, 1999 target." But while NERC can take steps to encourage and assist electric companies in preparing:, for Y2K—including coordinating, with the help of its 10 regional reliability councils, a series of Interconnection- and continent-wide drills—it has no authority to compel utilities to do anything. So its assurances are not exactly power in the line.

But there is reason to be cautiously optimistic: There's not a single electric utility, to Gorzelnik's (and our) knowledge, that is not aware of and working on the problem. And so far, the industry reports, fewer than 3% of items tested before remediation have shown any Y2K problems. Those that have proven Y2K-sensitive have exhibited what NERC calls in its report to DOE "mostly nuisance errors." The report concludes that "In most cases, Y2K does not affect primary device functions related to keeping generators and power delivery facilities in service and electricity supplied to customers."

Okay, "most cases" isn't all cases. But don't forget about all of those folks who will be poised to respond to any Y2K troubles that crop up during the rollover and in the days following. "I expect that New Year's Eve will be celebrated about a week or two late by the vast majority of electrical utility people, who will be on hand ... to make sure the lights stay on," says Gorzelnik. What storm or accident or falling tree sees that kind of reception?

Bottom line? We think the good money's on the grid. But if your lights do go out, it's hardly the end of the world—and it's hardly anything new. After all, who hasn't lived through a blackout? Don't panic, but do prepare. And above all remember, if the power goes down—it will come back up. In the Y2K world of hedged bets, we'll go out on a limb to guarantee that one.


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