Solar panel company banks on Y2K fears

Uncertainty: A White Marsh solar panel company is using an ad campaign that centers on possible power outages due to Y2K computer problems.

June 24, 1999|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

"Don't worry" is the message most often disseminated by utility companies to people worried there will be year 2000 computer glitches. But there's one White Marsh company that says a little more than optimism is needed.

"Don't let Y2K catch you unprepared," say radio ads for Millennium Power Systems, a residential solar products company.

"Call now -- while the phones still work," says another of the company's ads.

MPS, a division of Atlantic Solar Products Inc., started in September and provides solar energy units to residential customers. Atlantic Solar Products serve commercial users, the military and local governments.

"We're not fear mongers," said Doug Keller, MPS vice president. "We're selling our product as a reliable source of electricity.

"People have no idea if there will be a power outage on Jan. 1. And if they say there won't be one, they are lying. They have no clue."

But two local utility companies say all of their critical systems will be fixed and tested, and contingency plans completed by Wednesday.

"The electric industry is doing everything we can," said Jessica C. Brown, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Gas & Electric, a division of Constellation Energy Group. BGE plans to spend $42 million by next year to prepare for Y2K glitches.

"We don't want our customers to be frightened," Brown said. "We're looking to New Year's Eve to be a nonevent."

"It's very unlikely there will be widespread outages," said Kenneth Cohn, vice president and chief information officer of the Potomac Electric Power Co. The company has spent $12.1 million since 1995 on Y2K preparedness.

"People ask us if they should buy a generator or not. Pepco is not recommending our customers buy generators, but we do advise them to do what's comfortable for them," he said.

The worst case New Year's Day scenario would be a localized blackout for a few hours, but that is not the most likely scenario, said Brown of BGE.

The millennium problem, commonly referred to as Y2K for year 2000, arises because many older computers record dates using only the last two digits of the year.

If left uncorrected, such systems could treat the year 2000 as the year 1900, generating errors or causing computer systems to crash Jan. 1, 2000.

The North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) has been monitoring the nation's 3,000 utility companies, and has set a deadline of June 30 for critical system readiness.

In preparation for that deadline, utility companies have submitted monthly updates on their strides to prepare for any Y2K glitches.

The electricity industry -- which every home, business, and hospital depends on -- is at ground zero for Y2K concerns, said

Fred Millar, director of environmental and public safety for the Center for Y2K and Society, a Washington think tank.

"There are terrific vulnerabilities in the electricity system," he said. "The idea that we're going to have safe and secure operations in Y2K times is really a stretch of the imagination."

MPS began catering to the residential market because people began calling for energy systems for their homes because of their Y2K concerns, Keller said.

MPS customers did not want to be interviewed for this article because of privacy reasons, Keller said.

`Not hippies'

"They are not hippies. They are not freaks," Keller said. "They are normal people with discretionary income who typically work in the computer or financial business."

MPS units consist of solar paneling that is installed on part of a home's roof, a power panel the size of a large television screen installed on a wall inside the home, and a battery pack.

The batteries would last 20 years and the solar modules would last 40 years, Keller said. The solar panels feed the batteries, which power the house. The batteries go into use 34 milliseconds after electricity goes out, Keller said.

A typical system for a house would cost about $20,000 and would provide a third of the home's energy requirements, Keller said, enough to power computers, lights, phone systems, televisions, computers, fans and gas stoves.

The system is not designed for heavy loads such as air conditioners, electric stoves and electric water heaters, he said.

45 sales

The company has received 500 inquiries in the past three months and has sold 45 residential units nationwide so far, Keller said. Some callers have found the system's price to be prohibitive, while others find it worth the expense.

"Why do people buy Evian for $5 a gallon when they can drink tap water? They just want it," Keller said. "I have life insurance. I don't plan to die tomorrow, but I have it just in case."

Pub Date: 6/24/99

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