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Electric Utilities and Year 2000

Impact on Fossil Generation

By Rick Cowles (


Suppose that, all Y2K things being equal, an electric company's fossil generation facilities were Y2K prepared and ready to continue generating power after the turn of the century. The distribution grid remained online. The lights stayed on. A week passes, then two. Then, just when you thought you were out of the scary Y2K woods, during the third week of January, 2000, the power goes off. And stays off. How in the heck could this happen? I think you'll understand as you read a little further down the page.

While many of the same issues which impact nuclear power also impact fossil generation (particularly embedded control issues), there are some Y2K issues specific to fossil fuel generation that bear further investigation.

Here's some technical areas and plant systems that a southwestern U.S. power company is reviewing at one of their coal fired facilities (provided courtesy of a company insider):

Many of the administrative system concerns that exist within a nuclear power facility also apply to the fossil power industry. Primary among those are maintenance planning software and outage scheduling/forcasting software. Procurement systems and plant security systems are potentially affected as well.

Much of the above is a variation on the nuclear theme, and other information presented on this website. But there's one issue specific to fossil generation that does not impact nuclear power or most alternative energy sources - time dependant supplies of fuel.

The single most important element of ensuring that fossil plants stay online is ensuring that the supply lines for fuel delivery remain intact. Most fossil generation facilities have from 1 to 3 weeks of reserve fuel storage onhand at any given time, whether the fuel is coal or petroleum based. This reserve allows for minor disruptions of fuel supply lines. Very close to my own home (one block down the road), a 100 car freight train passes through town every single morning between 7AM and 8AM, 7 days a week, with coal shipments for the local coal fired co-generation plant.

In the transportation industry, particularly the railroads, the rolling of calendars to 01/01/2000 has the potential to be much more than just a 'minor disruption' of service. Rail car movement and inventory is tracked by date sensitive computer programs. Rail switching is no longer done manually, but is, in a lot of instances, controlled by antiquated date sensitive computers and embedded controls. Example:

"There is a computer in Washington, DC that tracks freight cars; the application is a 1970's TCAM system program. The manual switching yard in Arlington/Alexandria has been closed down for years, and the switching is done on the fly, distributed and managed by software. It is no longer possible to manually switch freight cars." ...Cory Hamasaki, HHR Inc.

Here's another story that's an incidental example of transportation problems:

"Here's something you may want to monitor. A still largely hidden Union Pacific Corp railroad story - an emerging debacle apparently caused by the merger of this rail giant with Southern Pacific Rail Corp. - has resulted in rail car and shipment nighmares that are crippling deliveries of commodities to critical industries accross the country.

"Thousands of rail cars ... are tied up or 'missing' in a morass of computer generated nightmares that no one expected according to company spokespersons."

An article concerning this situation was published in the October 13th Wall Street Journal, and is the lead subject in the October 24th issue of Ed Yardeni's The Y2K Reporter. Dr. Yardeni is the Chief Economist of the firm Deutsche, Morgan, Grenfell.

Are Y2K issues at the forefront of corporate conciousness for Union Pacific Corporation? Though UP has been working on the issue since 1995, I rather doubt it. The corporate priorities that plague Union Pacific are not just limited to that particular transport company, either. Given the recent selloff of Conrail to CSX and Norfolk Southern, it would not surprise me for a moment if the same types of problems existed in those organizations as well. I do not know what percentage of the nation's coal that these three companies ultimately transport for end use at generating plants, but I would suspect that it's better than 50%. I certainly don't know if these rail transport companies are seriously pursuing Y2K issues - but any electric company that runs a fossil generating facility which depends on rail transportation for their fuel deliveries better take the time to find out.

And lastly, under the heading of "incidental examples", comes these words from the North American Electric Reliability Council in their Winter 97/98 Electric Supply Assessment:

"A slowdown in coal delivery by some railroads has seriously reduced on-site stockpiles of coal at some generating plants in Texas and the southeast, and south central United States - particularly those dependent on coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming," says Michehl R. Gent, President of NERC. Electricity supplies could be tight in some of these areas if deliveries are not increased before the winter peak demand.

Electric utilities need to make sure that staying in touch with their fuel suppliers and transport companies, whether rail, truck, or marine, is high on the priority list. Having a Y2K prepared plant is going to mean very little if fuel suppliers or fuel transport companies are not prepared, and can't deliver the fuel needed to run the plant.

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