In the Spotlight

News & Features
Utilities Plan for Y2K
By Kathryn Herzog
February 3, 1999
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0 28.8

There have been many alarming scenarios discussed recently regarding possible computer malfunctions in the year 2000. Perhaps most dramatic is the chance of massive power failures leaving tens-of-millions of Americans in the dark. Power utilities and rural electric co-ops in Minnesota are coordinating their efforts to prepare for possible Y2K problems. But power industry analysts say the chances of a widespread power failure due to Y2K are remote.

THE STRENGTH AND WEAKNESS of the electric power grid in North America is one in the same: interconnectivity. The grid is divided into three main regions in the U.S. and Canada, so when one utility has a problem, others can assist. But there's also the potential for one utility's problems to affect the others.
Gorzelnick: It's like they operate as one large heart beating in unison.
Gene Gorzelnick is Communications Director of the North American Electric Reliability Council. The Council was asked by the Department of Energy to coordinate Y2K readiness programs in the U.S. and Canada. Gorzelnick says there's concern a Y2K problem at one utility might be transferred to another utility.
Gorzelmick: So what you have to do is operate the system, design the necessary procedures so that this doesn't occur and this is what we are working towards. So that the problem doesn't carry on into other systems. We think that we're in a pretty good condition that there shouldn't be any significant problems.
Gorzelnick says power industry analysts are increasingly confident that any power failures due to Y2K will be minimal. A recent report by the Electric Reliability Council indicates that any power outages will be local and manageable. The industry group wants power companies to be prepared by June 30th, allowing a few months to catch unexpected glitches.

Share Brandt of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association says the power industry prepares for emergencies everyday and Y2K is no different.
Brandt: The unique thing about the electric industry is because we always need to be prepared for emergencies, there's a lot of manual switches and ways to make the system function, or make the system come back on by switching to a manual process. And especially that's true on the transmission side. So we're very comfortable; we are quite confident that there's not going to be total blackouts and complete outages.
Brandt says a widespread power failure due to Y2K is unlikely. However, in the beginning of the new millennium, it may be the plants with the simplest technology that provide the power. Back-up power plants will be on-line, and ready to make up for any Y2K problems. The majority of the plants are free of any embedded microchip technology, the instigator of Y2K problems. Back-up plants aren't as efficient as the more modern power plants and can't meet the public's energy demands alone. But Brandt says they don't expect to use the plants because utilities don't expect any major problems.
Brandt: The interruptions could be caused by other areas along the way in the transmission efforts, or something that, perhaps, we would bring a peaking plant on-line in a certain area to resolve a certain issue caused by some other predicament down the way; (it's) not likely our major plants going off-line.
While power utilities remain confident the lights will be on come January 1, 2000, police and fire departments across the state are already preparing for possible blackouts.

Wadena County Emergency Services Coordinator Wayne Terry says temporary emergency housing will be a main concern if there is a loss of power.
Terry: We're looking at if the power would go down on December 31, where we could house people that couldn't be without heat for long periods of time such as elderly people living alone or families with small children.
The county has been developing contingency plans and Terry says county workers are locating backup diesel generators to heat homes and shelters if needed. There will be emergency drills throughout the year to ensure communication between emergency services.
Terry: If the power would go, how would law enforcement function? And we're also going to assume we have power but what other things could go wrong.
Police departments are testing their communication systems and counties are checking their computers for possible Y2K problems.

While emergency workers prepare for the worst, representatives of the state's utilities insist Minnesota will not begin the new millennium in the cold and dark.

Kathryn Herzog reports on stories in the Collegeville area. You can reach her at