Pepco Passes a Preliminary Y2K Test
By Peter Behr
At precisely 11 a.m. yesterday, an operations crew in a command center in Montgomery County acted out engineer Dick Kafka's worst nightmare: a blackout of information about how electricity flows through the Potomac Electric Power Co.'s system.
If this were to happen on Jan. 1, 2000, because telephone networks were struck down by the year 2000 software malady, Pepco's operators would suddenly lose their grip on the entire system.
Yet this time, the blackout was merely a test. And this time, a low-tech backup remedy solved the problem.
As Kafka, a senior Pepco engineer, watched, another engineer got on a simple radio phone to query technicians at key installations in the region about vital operating data. The technicians read back the answers from old-style gauges that can't catch the Y2K bug. The system still functioned.
Pepco, and utilities across the country, will be conducting more tests of utility systems this spring and summer as power companies seek to assure themselves that the nation's electricity supply won't be disrupted when the calendar turns to 2000. Convincing the public, however, will be much harder, they say.
By year's end, Pepco anticipates spending $12 million to safeguard the system that serves the District and Maryland suburbs. Old software instructions that include only the final two digits of a year, and thus can't distinguish between 1900 and 2000, will have been fixed or replaced, said Kenneth P. Cohn, who runs Pepco's Y2K Task Force.
Cohn said the company will finish testing its power generating units and computer systems by June 30, a power industry deadline. "We expect to be ready. We haven't found anything that will prevent us from making that date," he said.
While Pepco engineers are confident they will make the deadline, they cannot guarantee yet that no software glitches lie undetected somewhere within Pepco or the other utilities with which it shares power, said Walter Johnson, Pepco's general manager for transmission system operations.
That's why they are making preparations such as those tested yesterday.
"We have a very healthy respect for the problem. We understand we have to take care of it," Johnson said.
But, he added, "We have to posit that anything and everything can happen. The consequences of missing something are serious enough that we have to have a remedy for anything that could go wrong."
The contingency plan invoked yesterday assumed that a failure in phone company networks had suddenly cut off delivery of data from Pepco installations to the control center. Unable to receive and react to these vital operating signs, the system would have been struck blind.
Then, if something went wrong, the operators would be hard-pressed to fix it, dramatically raising the risk that a small problem would cascade into widespread power outages -- as happened in San Francisco in December.
Yesterday, the command center continued to function while the test went on. In front of Johnson and Kafka, a computerized diagram traced a flow of 3,238 megawatts of electricity to customers within and beyond the Washington region. On the right of the screen, small red lights showed that a quartet of circuit breakers were operating, transmitting 153 megawatts of power smoothly from Pepco's coal-fired plant in Morgantown, W.Va.
The numbers on the screen change constantly as consumers' demand for electricity ebbs and flows. If something had gone wrong in the Morgantown connection, the problem would have registered immediately on the screen and operators could have begun to tune the system to route the power through other corridors.
"When a line goes down, the power has to distribute itself," Johnson said. "Our ability to control that is very important."
In yesterday's demonstration, one radio phone link was enough to manage a round of calls to a half-dozen transmission facilities on Pepco's system. If a phone network were to fail on Jan. 1, rendering the control center monitors useless, a squad of engineers would make those calls from eight consoles in the center, Kafka said.
But Pepco could not have passed critical operating information to other interconnected utilities beyond its borders if the phone network had failed, Pepco engineers said, because its radio system won't reach that far.
It will take another month to fix that potential threat, by establishing a satellite phone link between Pepco and a major utility command center for the east coast at Valley Forge, Pa.
"Today," Kafka said, "it wouldn't have worked."
These are the kinds of challenges engineers are born to solve, said Kafka, 51, a Purdue University engineering graduate who has been with Pepco for 26 years.
"It's an engineer's dream. And an engineer's nightmare. We have a very methodical approach, looking at everything," he said. It's a process so complex that average people cannot follow it, so they're left with taking the engineers' word that everything will turn out okay on Jan. 1. "We're going to make it," Kafka said. "That's what I tell my mother, too."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company