An informal survey, by a Senate panel of 10 of the nation's largest utilities,serving 50 million people, found that none has complete contingency plans in case their computers fail because of the Year 2000 problem.
One utility didn't know how many lines of computer code it had, making it impossible to know how difficult or time-consuming its problem will be to solve with fewer than 18 months remaining.
"We're no longer at the point of asking whether or not there will be any power disruptions, but we are now forced to ask how severe the disruptions are going to be," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.
Friday's hearing was the inaugural meeting of the Senate committee created to investigate the Year 2000 problem, which will cause many computers that recognize only the last two digits of a year to fail or malfunction. The panel focused Friday on the progress by the nation's utility industry.
Many of the nation's electrical plants use date-sensitive software to run built-in clocks that monitor and control the flow of power.If these systems are not updated than it could fail. Since the problem can cause computers to miscalculate dates, it could also affect utility billing systems and even electronically controlled security gates at power plants.
One industry expert, Michael Gent of the North American Electric Reliability Council, called the chances of cascading power outages caused by the problem "extremely low, but conceivable."
"No one's going to give you a 100 percent assurance," said Mike Hyland, the engineering manager at the American Public Power Association. "There's always a chance for a power outage, from a windstorm or a squirrel on the line. Is there a possibility [from Year 2000]? At least remotely, yes."
Committee Chairman Bob Bennett, R-Utah, said he was "genuinely concerned about the very real prospects of power shortages." But the senators also urged against panic.
"We can't be Chicken Little. We cannot give too much aid to people who say the sky is falling," said Bennett.
Bennett said Senate staff surveyed 10 of the nation's largest utilities, which he did not identify, and asked questions such as how many of their most important computers have already been fixed. Estimates ranged from unsure to 5 percent to 54 percent, but all 10 said they'll be finished in time.
Experts have warned for years that many computers originally programmed to recognize only the last two digits of a year will fail on Jan. 1, 2000, when machines will assume it is 1900.
Some computers can be reprogrammed through tedious rewriting of their software code, but many devices such as the utility industry's "frequency relays" and other monitoring equipent have embedded microchips that must be physically replaced.
Written by Ted Bridis