Renewable Energy and the Millenium Bug

By now, you have probably heard of the "Millenium Bug", aka the "year 2000" virus, generally abbreviated Y2K. This is the problem, actually not a bug or a virus, that results from years of computer programmers designing their programs to recognize the date as a 2-digit number, i.e. "98" instead of 1998.

The problem occurs when the year 2000 rolls around ("00") and computers that do calculations on dates, i.e. how many years has it been since ‘92, will dutifully do their calculations by subtracting 92 from 00 and come up with –92 years. Oops. At this point, depending on what the computer program is supposed to do based on that result, all sorts of strange things could happen.

Companies both big and small, as well as government agencies, have been conducting tests on their installed computer systems to find out if they will have a problem and trying to come up with a way to correct it.

The renewable energy industry is no exception, but with one major difference. According to Home Power magazine in their August/September issue, none of the devices they have tested (and it’s a lot) will have a problem when the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, 1999.

Luckily, none of the renewable energy systems is in any way date dependent or use dates in any of their microprocessor systems. And that is good news for those of us who have installed renewable energy systems. It means that we can count on our systems working just as well on New Year’s day as on New Year’s Eve.

Not all electrical systems will be so lucky. One of the bigger concerns with the Y2K problems is the effect they will have on our nationwide electrical grid. Though it hasn’t gotten a lot of the press associated with the millenium bug, there is the serious issue of how well the many interconnected electrical utilities are handling the situation.

Most of the big utilities have been working on the problem in recent years and will have their most sensitive systems corrected in time. However, there are a lot of small local utilities that are tied to the grid that may not have the problem solved or even identified in all of their systems in time.

If only 1 or 2 isolated small utilities fail from a Y2K related problem there should be little impact on the grid as a whole. However, if a number of small utilities, generating facilities, or regional network interconnections have a Y2K related failure there could be significant impact on the grid.

The biggest potential problem is from a "cascade failure" similar to what occurred a few years ago (twice) on the West Coast. This could come when the grid attempts to reroute power to areas with failures and hasn’t got enough power to meet demand. The long term effect of such an impact is hard to gauge. Certainly a period of unreliability is possible, lasting anywhere from hours or days to weeks, depending on the severity.

The hardest aspect of the problem to correct will be in what is known as "embedded systems". These are individual computer chips or computer boards that have specific computer programs as part of their hardware. They are designed to function automatically, without human intervention, and perform certain specified tasks at designated intervals.

If these systems are designed with a clock that performs tasks based on a date they will be more prone to failure. Potential embedded systems problems are also the hardest to find and identify as many companies buy and install these systems without fully understanding how they function.

I hope that Leon Kersteins will address this issue as it relates to our local power provider, IREA, in one of his future columns. Since IREA is not a power generation utility, but simply resells power that it buys from Public Service Company, it may not have as much of a problem. It would be interesting to know how they plan to address it.

Here’s what Richard Perez of Home Power Magazine has to say about the coming of the millenium.

"Here’s my advice for those of you concerned about Y2K…install a renewable energy system. That way if society falls apart, then at least you will have electricity. If society doesn’t fall apart, then at least you will have electricity."

Well said, Richard.

All Contents © 1998
Wagonmaker Press
Thomas W. Elliot


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