Power to the People


Despite the pervasive fear of Y2K across the nation, New Yorkers will still be able to get health care and water, ride the subway, and flush the toilet, according to a report issued a few weeks ago by the Regional Plan Association (RPA).

The city’s hospitals will most likely be ready to take on the millennium bug,. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is 97 percent Y2K compliant as of last month. Water, sewage, and garbage systems will be Y2K ready before year’s end. But all good news aside, none of this will matter if the power doesn’t work.

The RPA report did not look at the Y2K readiness of local power utilities like Con Edison, recently troubled by multiple brownouts in the city and a major blackout in Washington Heights during the July 4 heat wave. Con Ed supplies power to more than 8 million customers in the city and Westchester County.

RPA has focused on potentially overlooked systems like health care and sewage. “There’s currently a lot of information about Y2K readiness of electricity,” says Aram Khachadurian, vice president of RPA and executive director of its Y2K task force. Con Ed has claimed all its mission-critical systems will be Y2K ready in time, even offering a Y2K pamphlet consumers can obtain through an 800 number. But there are no independent studies that can confirm the utility’s process for arriving at that conclusion. Spokespersons did not return calls seeking comment.

The only outside monitor of Con Ed is the North American Energy Reliability Council (NERC), an industry group that set standards for Y2K overhaul of energy utilities last year. Brooklyn Union Gas, which serves Brooklyn, Staten Island, and two-thirds of Queens, is also following NERC’s standards. Both Con Ed and Brooklyn Union filed reports on their Y2K situation June 30, but the reports will not be publicly available until July 29, when NERC announces its findings to the Department of Energy (DOE).

Brooklyn Union is 100 percent Y2K ready as of the June 30 deadline, according to spokespersons. Though NERC could not release any information on the reports filed by Con Ed, as of May, 91 percent of “all mission-critical systems of all major transmissions providers were Y2K ready,” says Eugene Gorzelnik, director of communications at NERC.

The NERC findings, however, are not entirely independent. Utilities have been submitting self-reports on their Y2K overhaul without any inspections by NERC. “What we have done to deal with that is create an independent verification project to look at a number of utilities—chosen at random—to see if what they’re reporting is true,” Gorzelnik says. “But we’re comfortable with the self-reporting. If anything went wrong, there’d be an untold amount of investigations going on. No utility wants that.”

RPA and NERC concur that critical computer systems will be fine on January 1, and that human unpredictability is the big wild card for Y2K. “It’s an unquantifiable risk,” Khachadurian says. “We don’t know how people will react when the time comes.”

Shutting the power off, for instance, could be disastrous. “We hope and expect that residential customers don’t do anything dramatically different,” Gorzelnik says. “It’s good to not shut off the power. One household is not a problem. But if a million and a half households turn off their power, that’s a problem.”