The Day the Country Goes Dark

It's New Years Eve 1999. You're standing in the cold in New York's Times Square with a million of your closest friends, or perhaps you're curled up on your sofa under a warm blanket watching Dick Clark on the television. The big ball that has become an American tradition initiates its decent, and the 1900s starts to say its final farewell. As the ball nears its final destination you grab your loved one to bring the new century in with a passionate embrace. Then, just as the clock strikes twelve, all the lights go off, and you are left sitting in total darkness.

This is one of the doomsday images behind the so-called Y2K bug. The Y2K bug refers to problems computers may face during the transition from 1999 to 2000 because many computers are programmed to recognize only the last two digits of the year. The fear is many computers, especially those that control essential services such as our electric supply, might think that 2000 is actually 1900, or more troubling, might be so confused they will cease to function altogether.

The problem is serious in the power utilities because they are essential for most every other facet of today's economy, and because the glitch is harder to correct in their systems. This is because power utilities are dependent on embedded computer control systems – that is, single or multi-purpose computerized devises that are implanted within a larger system or group of industrial products. These microprocessors escaped the first round of Y2K attention since they are "buried" within larger systems and are often simply taken for granted. Yet within a single utility company, there can be billions of embedded chips, which could experience some type of disruption. As the U.S. electric power industry is comprised of approximately 3,200 different electric utilities, it is crucial that everyone does their part to make certain the lights stay on.

As fall sets in, the question naturally arises: Are we ready? Maybe, which might be unsettling to some. If you listen to press reports coming from many of our federal agencies, there is reason to be optimistic. But according to some experts, these reports can be misleading.

While some agencies are predicting limited or no problems, they are often based on incomplete data. In fact, according to Y2K expert Prof. Dick Lefkon, there is a long list of power firms who are not yet willing or able to announce full Y2K compliance. This list includes such utilities as Baltimore G&E, Detroit Edison, Florida Power, Indianapolis P&L, Minnesota Power and Wisconsin P&L, among others.

Yet even with utilities that announce they are compliant, there is room to wonder. That is because to be compliant, utilities only have to check microprocessors that they deem "essential" to power delivery. This may be insufficient. Last year, Congress issued a report that criticized enterprises which don't test everything, since an uncertified "non-critical" computerized system can malfunction and disable the computer it shares with a very critical one. On this point Prof. Lefkon warns: "These power companies say they're 'essentially completed,' or have finished fixing some systems they feel are important, or – laughable – have 'not found anything that would prevent' delivering power." But, "if you aren't willing to spend time, money and effort to investigate, you won't find anything you dislike."

This lack of information is not isolated to the electric industry. For example, the chemical industry has approximately 69,000 operations. Yet the government only has data on less than 500 of them. We have a similar problem in the water industry, where we only have data on less than 600 of the 190,000 operations.

Another concern is our nation's nuclear power plants. The nuclear power industry provides 20% of electric power nationally, and 40% of electric power in the Northeast. A Nuclear Energy Institute survey indicates that 22 of the nation's 103 nuclear reactors were not expected to be 100% Y2K ready until the 4th quarter. Compounding this concern is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's lack of uniform guidelines describing what constitutes being Y2K ready. This allows nuclear facilities to define Y2K compliance on their own.

Reality is, we just don't know what will happen on January 1, 2000. In all likelihood, Y2K will not cause a large-scale blackout, but it is possible that some localized problems will occur. My hope is Y2K won't be remembered as the day the lights went out. Instead, I hope it's remembered for the millions of little hassles that happen a week or month down the road, like receiving a bill that's due before you were born.



The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues. The NCPA is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, with an office in Washington, D.C.