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Allegheny Power confident of Y2K

March 05, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Allegheny Power has made significant progress in stamping out the so-called millennium bug, and company officials pronounced confidence they will meet their June 30 goal.

Just in case they do not hit the target, officials are feverishly working on backup plans to avoid disruption on Jan. 1, when many computer systems will believe it is 1900.

"The whole industry is confident we're going to meet that," said Kenneth M. Jones, vice president and Y2K project manager for Allegheny Energy, the firm's corporate entity.

Despite the confidence, Jones said unforeseen problems still might arise. He said possible power outages could range from a flicker to several hours.

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People searching for an iron-clad promise are not in luck.

"We can't guarantee it I can't guarantee it (for) tonight," Jones said. "There could still be a problem hidden out there."

Jones said customers should prepare for the possibility of disruptions just as they would for an ice storm or other foul weather.

The widely reported problem centers on programming shortcuts in the design of hundreds of thousands of computer systems that abbreviated dates as two-digit codes.

In the programming, 99 represents 1999. Many computer systems, it is feared, will interpret 00 as 1900 and shut down.

No one knows how widespread the problem is, but experts have estimated it will cost $600 billion or more to fix the problem. Allegheny Energy, alone, will spend between $15 million and $20 million, officials said.

Power companies across the country have reported progress toward repairing and replacing computer systems that might cause problems when 1999 turns to 2000.

"Come the turn of the century, we are confident that North American utilities will be Y2K-ready," said Gene Gorzelnik, a spokesman for the North American Electric Reliability Council - or NERC - a nonprofit organization that works with power companies.

Independent experts, however, expressed skepticism.

"They generally started late on their production and distribution systems," said Leon A. Kappelman, a professor at the University of North Texas who has tracked Y2K issues for three years.

Kappelman, who is co-chairman of the SIM Year 2000 Working Group, criticized the limited details provided by the NERC and power companies. He also noted that NERC's December report to the Department of Energy stated that 28 percent of the nation's power companies had not yet made Y2K plans.

"That's appalling," he said. "Planning gets you barely 10 percent of the way to solving this problem."

Kappelman said individuals and communities need to pressure industries to release more information. He said vital systems should be audited by independent experts.

"Government has to get involved. They have the authority to push the information out," he said.

Fixing the problem

By the end of January, Allegheny Energy officials had spent about 45,000 man hours addressing the problem. Jones estimated the company will have invested 80,000 man hours on the problem by the time its finished.

The first step was to identify every piece of machinery and computer equipment used in the generation and delivery of electricity.

Then 24 teams examined the different systems and identified ones that might fail on Jan. 1. Jones said the teams have been repairing or replacing those components and then testing them.

The effort has included 270 employees in addition to several outside companies that have been hired to help with the problem. Before it's over, the effort will involve about 500 workers, or about a 10th of its employees.

The first big test for Allegheny Energy will come April 9 when every power company in the nation will take part in a drill sponsored by NERC.

During the drill, which will simulate problems caused by Y2K but will not interrupt operations, company officials will test plans for overcoming disruptions in communications systems.

"This is going to pretend that the phones don't work," said Allegheny Energy spokesman Todd Meyers.

For some companies, that might mean communicating between power plants and substations with walkie-talkies, Gorzelnik said. Others may use satellite phones or ham radio, he said.

The power companies will report the results to NERC, which was founded in 1968 in response to blackouts that affected much of the East Coast in 1965. NERC will post the results on its Web site - www.nerc.com.

Backup plans

As they correct the problems, company officials also are designing what-if plans in case systems fail anyway. Jones said the company has completed about 35 percent of those plans so far.

"The hope is the contingencies will never have to be used," he said.

Just in case, though, company officials have told employees not to make concrete New Year's Eve plans.

Extra workers will man power stations and substations throughout Allegheny Energy's service area, Jones said. He said workers will flip switches to perform functions that computers now do automatically.

Jones stressed again that company officials believe the system will operate on its own.

"But in case it doesn't, we're going to have to have a lot of people out there who are ready to do it manually," he said.

Power companies will participate in another drill in September that NERC officials characterize as a dress rehearsal for the real thing.

After systems essential to safety and power generation are cleared, the company will then turn its attention to less-critical systems, like billing software.

And officials said they may continue to test equipment past the June 30 deadline.

"It gives us another six months to get ready for the real thing," Meyers said.

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