Glistening Volts presents

In the Belly of the Beast


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Power Company

It was a dark and stormy night somewhere on the globe, but here in the northeast US it was a wonderful fall morning, and the Glistening Volts Road Show was infiltrating a power industry workshop on the Year 2000 problem. Trying their best (and failing miserably) to look like electrical engineers, entering in ones and twos, picking up food,drink and name tags along the way, they finally clustered in a small prickly lump near the front and settled down to watch the show.

And quite a show it turned out to be...


In the mid Atlantic states of the US the company responsible for the electrical energy market and transmission control is PJM Interconnection LLC. More than five hundred generators tie into the PJM power pool providing 56 gigawatts of capacity over 8000 miles of transmission grid covering an area of 50000 sq miles supplying power to 23 million consumers, yada,yada,yada. Membership in PJM is open to all wholesale electric market participants (they get to appoint someone to an advisory committee to the PJM governing Board,and are also contractually obligated to PJM ....)

This workshop was meant to allow working groups of its member companies to discuss Y2K re-mediation programs with each other .. better avoid pitfalls and share shortcuts and so on.

Another bit of context:the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had passed a law requiring power utilities to exhibit readiness for the Y2K roll over by March 1999.

The Circus Begins

Kicking off was a discussion of Senate Bill 2392, purporting to protect companies making Y2K disclosures against legal liability Looked like a real hard sell to this audience, clearly most of them felt that the bill provided no real protection. Next was a NERC (N. American Elec. Reliability Council) presentation (Recommended Y2K readiness date Jun 30 1999;Nukes expected to be up; Universal participation must be enforced(!); 2 drills April and sep 9 1999).

The meaty part

PJM members Y2K programs: This was a mixed bag. There were very few Y2K project heads present. One was in Chile doing Y2K fixes, one had a bug, one had sumpn else. Three or four of the participants had proper presentations; the rest (mostly standing in for absent project heads) sullenly muttered rote phrases intended to soothe and soporify, paying lip service to the Mar 1999 deadline. Of the better presentations some points stood out a)Few problems found in substations and relays b)Cost of upgrades and fixes is being shared among several participants, and data is being shared about production rollouts c)at least one member plans fixes through replacement -- 2 major software installs thru 2nd quarter 99.. a very aggressive schedule ...d)Contingency plans are just now being drawn up e)always test, trust no vendors f)deadly embrace of telco, power,gas, coal, rail, water... not being addressed nearly fast enough but at least three of the presenters mentioned coordination plans with other utilities and their consumers as well. g)PJM may operate in non-economic net-zero mode over the Y2K changeover with primary reserves on synchronized equipment

Looking at the numbers: Of all the 'mission critical' systems discussed by PJM members at the workshop about 50% were in or had completed the testing phase. (roughly the same as NERC reported nationwide). Some systems were not even out of inventory.. much less assessment, remediation or testing.

Tail Ends

We beat a cautious retreat, muttering things like 'reclose with pilot back' and 'spinning reserve objective' to throw the PJM hounds off our trail. It seems that power companies are in better shape than last year when they couldn't even spell 'embedded systems', or six months ago when they could spell it but not count them. Contingency planning seems sketchy and concentrated solely on the Y2K rollover (do they think that the millennial crazies will wait for the millennium?). Distribution seems in better shape than feared but telecom, security,and facility support are much worse than hoped. Co-operation among regional electric utilities is increasing but not much evidence of co-operation between different kinds of utilities (cf. deadly embrace)

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