X-Message-Number: 10491
Date: Tue, 29 Sep 1998 09:57:57 -0400 (EDT)
From: Charles Platt <>
Subject: Y2K

The Y2K discussion is interesting in that it parallels many discussions 
about the viability of cryonics. On one side, the techno-optimists 
believe that smart people in the future will fix everything. On the other 
side, doomsayers warn that complexities of the task are being underrated.

Also, as in cryonics, the argument cannot be settled because we have 
insufficient data and cannot test the assertions on either side.

The difference of course is that in this case, we'll find out who's 
correct within less than two years.

A magazine asked me to write something on the impact of Y2K on electric
power generation and distribution in the United States. This was not a
happy writing assignment, because I had so much trouble obtaining any
reliable facts. For the record, this is what I did find: 

1. The power grid extends not only across the US but into Canada and down 
into Mexico. There is relatively little spare capacity. If nuclear power 
plants are shut down on 1.1.2000 (as many claim is inevitable, in order 
to comply with safety regulations) there will be no spare capacity. A 
cascade of failures is certainly possible as power plants that are Y2K 
compliant find they cannot handle the load when noncompliant plants shut 

2. On the upside, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which is 
supported by power utilities, is serving as a clearing house for 
information about Y2K fixes. When one power company solves a problem, it 
pools the information with others. Unfortunately EPRI is so paranoid 
about future law suits, its Y2K web page (where information is shared) is 
restricted to members only, and EPRI spokespersons will not confirm that 
even one Y2K problem has ever been found, let alone solved.

3. On the downside, small distribution companies cannot afford EPRI 
participation. There are thousands of these small compnies. They are the 
ones that pull power off the grid and resell it to you, the consumer. 
Their name is at the top of your electric bill. They maintain local power 
lines, but basically are middlemen with relatively low profit margins, no 
real research budget, and no clue (in many cases) about technical matters 
such as embedded controller chips, which they bought unwittingly in 
off-the-shelf packages such as safety systems for transformers. One 
person I spoke to expects rural power companies to be affected more 
severely than large urban companies, which have a bigger budget, more 
manpower, and may be EPRI members. Bearing this in mind, maybe it's 
better to go against survivalist dictum and remain in the Big City, if 
you want the lights to turn on when you flip the switch (or if you want 
the electric ignition in your gas furnace to work).

4. On the upside, one of the few power generating utilities that was
willing to speak frankly to me about Y2K told me that it has not yet found
any problem that would have shut down its entire system. Its active Y2K
program has uncovered problems that would merely cause brief local
outages. This company is located in Canada. American companies are
generally too afraid of liability to say anything reassuring, and too
afraid of causing panic to say anything disturbing. So, they will say

5. On the downside, many coal-fired electric power generating facilities 
are not self-starting. They need electricity from other facilities in 
order to resume operation after a period of downtime. One can imagine 
them all waiting for each other to generate that first volt.

6. For the consumer, gasoline generators are not an easy answer. They are
expensive (typically $1,000 or more for a few KW) and, guess what, they
consume gasoline. According to my calculations, if I wanted to sustain my
freezer and various other "necessities" here, for up to a month, I would
have to install a tank to hold at least 500 gallons of gasoline in my 
back yard. My neighbors might not be amused. 

7. On the upside, I spoke to a systems manager who used to work for the 
IRS, and he told me he is 100-percent (not 99-percent) convinced that the 
agency will be out of business for at least six months.

What's the take-home message? I simply don't know, just as I simply don't 
know precisely what the chances are for resuscitation of cryonics 
patients. Moreover, I believe no one really knows.

--Charles Platt

PS. I would love to include references for my various statements above. 
Unfortunately however the power supply in my computer failed last week, 
leaving all my data trapped on the hard drive. Didn't I have backups? Of 
course I had backups! But without a power supply, my computer can't read 
any backups. Thus, I am working on a laptop till my new power supply 
arrives. Lesson: despite all attempts to be prudent, some totally 
unexpected techno-glitch can still wipe you out.

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