U.S. Utilities: 100 Pct Ready for Y2K

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Americans can go to bed on New Year's Eve confident that their electric lights and power will still be working whey they wake, the Clinton Administration said on Thursday.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson declared that the nation's electric utilities were 100 percent ready for possible Y2K computer problems, and had contingency plans in place to keep power flowing smoothly.

Consumers who bought portable electric generators out of fear about power shortages linked to the millennium bug should consider returning them to the stores, he said.

``My advice to the American people is, you don't need to buy power generators. If you can get a good deal on a return, do it,'' Richardson said.

He spoke at Potomac Electric Power Co.'s (NYSE:POM - news) control center in the Washington suburbs, where the utility will track its power and distribution to some 700,000 customers on New Year's Eve.

The Y2K problem stems from older computer programs that represent the year with only the last two digits. Experts have warned that some computers could read 2000 as 1900, which could cause system-wide crashes at the new year.

The U.S. utility industry has said for months it expected only minor problems at year-end, but prepared plans to maintain round-the-clock staffing in case of emergency brown-out and black-outs.

Richardson cautioned that while all American utilities are ready for Y2K computer problems, there still could be brief outages caused by severe winter storms or other non-Y2K accidents or mishaps.

``We simply cannot guarantee against any outages,'' Richardson said.

The administration pronounced all U.S. utilities ready after seven companies completed work this week on their contingency plans. Richardson did not identify the stragglers.

``Just three months ago, over a million people still weren't assured that their power companies were prepared for the rollover into the new millennium,'' Richardson said at a briefing.

``But today, with just 16 days until the year 2000, all customers across the country will be serviced by Y2K-ready power companies,'' he added.

James Hoecker, the head of the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, urged consumers to refrain from filling up their gasoline tanks on New Year's Eve or placing last-minute orders for home heating oil. That kind of action could disrupt petroleum supplies, he said.

Likewise, consumers should not keep extra gasoline or heating oil on hand in their basements or garages. ``There is no reason to store or hoard dangerous fuels,'' Hoecker said.

He said the United States has an extra 30 days of natural gas supplies built into the system, which is enough to deal with any Y2K disruptions that may occur.

``When Americans turn up their thermostats or turn on their stove top burners, natural gas will be there,'' Hoecker said.

Hoecker, whose agency regulates interstate electric power lines and natural gas pipelines, is part of the White House team that has overseen nationwide Y2K preparations.

Of more concern to administration officials is the potential for disruption in international energy supplies.

Richardson sought to reassure consumers by repeating that Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela and Kuwait have agreed to stand ready to pump extra oil if any unexpected international supply problems develop due to computers that control pipelines, ship navigation, refineries and other facilities.

In the worst case, the White House could open the spigot for the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, said Richardson, who sent the White House contingency plans last week for selling oil from the reserve if necessary.

The emergency stockpile contains, created after the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, contains about 572 million barrels of oil in underground caverns.

-- Mild Mannered Reporter (clark@super.duper), December 19, 1999

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