Utilities hold Y2K test on 99th day of year '99

Drill goes smoothly for 200 power firms


April 10, 1999|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,SUN STAFF

Two of the state's biggest utilities participated in a nationwide drill yesterday intended to prepare computers against potential problems arising from the Year 2000.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and the Potomac Electric Power Co. were among 200 utilities participating for the first time in a series of national exercises aimed at getting equipment ready for Y2K.

The test date, April 9, was chosen because it is the 99th day of 1999, a number experts feared some computer programs might interpret as an error, because some programmers once typed in a series of 9s as placeholders.

While power companies didn't believe the date would cause any glitches, they wanted to be prepared. Another drill is scheduled for Sept. 9, the ninth day of the ninth month of 1999.

Overall, the drill went smoothly, according to a statement by the North American Electric Reliability Council posted on its Web site. The New Jersey-based industry group coordinated yesterday's test of satellite and backup communications systems, involving about 2,000 people.

The council is one of a number of power coalitions working to shore up systems so that neither electricity nor natural gas service will be interrupted at the turn of the year. NERC includes 11 mid-Atlantic power companies whose systems are connected.

Both BGE and Pepco, which provide electricity to about 1.5 million Marylanders, intend to have all of their systems, power plants, and transmission and distribution equipment upgraded and ready by June 30.

Full contingency plans are expected to be in place by Sept. 30.

"We see no major problems with the electric grid nationwide," said Robert W. Cornelius, BGE's Y2K project manager. "But we don't want to wait until the last minute to do these things. A lot of people are counting on us to have these plans done."

The utility companies said the drills yesterday -- focusing on backup communications, as well as radio and satellite systems -- went as planned.

Workers at hundreds of sites called in meter readings via hand-held radios and logged in data manually, rather than using computers hooked together by fiber-optic lines and microwave transmitters.

"We thought the drills were successful," Cornelius said. "Part of that success had to do with lessons learned, and there were lessons learned, especially when it came to communications protocol, such as who says what and when. Our backup systems did work, which gives us a lot of confidence."

BGE, which has more than 200 employees testing and planning contingencies for Y2K, expects to spend $42 million to stem any problems.

Pepco, which has been working on the Y2K issue since 1995, intends to spend $12 million to identify and address any difficulties.

"Today's test has validated the soundness of our Y2K preparations," said Ken Cohn, Pepco's general manager of computer services.

Pepco said 90 percent of its critical systems are ready, while BGE says it is 85 percent ready.

Wire services contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 4/10/99

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