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City Utilities leads curve in addressing Y2K issues

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by Christine Ballew-Gonzales

SBJ Contributing Writer

Four years ago, the term Y2K had not even passed the lips of most Springfieldians. But it was in 1995 that City Utilities began formulating answers to the date-rollover questions that are now on every CU customer's mind.

"Our task force was formed in the fall of 1997," said Brenda Putman, who chairs the CU Y2K Task Force. "But we started our project in 1995, addressing our mainframe and personal computer Y2K issues."

One concern with the date-rollover issue is the possibility of CU customers' being inappropriately billed for utility services. That issue has been resolved, Putman said.

"We have an internally developed billing system," Putman said. "We have changed to all new date routines. That was accomplished and operable earlier this year."

CU's decision to schedule a power outage for Y2K testing purposes at its southwest power station made national headlines, according to Putman.

"We were the first utility in North America to announce that we were taking a Y2K outage," she said. "We received calls from the CBS Evening News and as far away as Australia."

During the outage, the system was advanced to Dec. 31 and tested. The results were positive, Putman said.

"It was pretty successful in that there was nothing found that would cause an outage or shutdown," she said. CU also spent two years working to replace the system control and data acquisition equipment, which shows CU employees how the electricity is flowing through the system. That change was completed in March.

Water system issues were addressed earlier this year, when the company that supplied water-system equipment told CU that an upgrade was necessary in order to be Y2K compliant. The needed improvements were made, and the system was tested with several different scenarios in February.

"Everything went fine," Putman said.

Last summer saw the testing of CU's natural gas system, Putman said. "A simulated system was set up, and we ran it through several critical date scenarios," she said.

When CU's own system proved on-track, a team of CU employees visited the Saginaw compressor station, which compresses the natural gas that ultimately makes it to CU customers.

November 1998 tests showed no Y2K problems at the compressor station, Putman said.

The Y2K issue is a costly one, according to Putman, who said that millions would ultimately be spent keeping utility services running when the clock strikes 12 this Dec. 31.

"We think we're going to spend $4.3 million on Y2K related issues," she said. "We've been working long and hard on it." In addition to the financial outlay, thousands of hours have been spent to date to bring CU systems up to Y2K speed.

The topic of Y2K and its potential to cause utility calamities is a frequently featured topic at utility organization meetings, Putman said.

"It's treated with a very high degree of respect and seriousness," she said. "It's an extremely important utility issue." Public utilities, now standing in the wings of deregulation, can't afford to risk anything when it comes to Y2K, Putman said.

What does Putman want City Utilities customers to know about how Y2K relates to them?

In a recent Y2K readiness disclosure letter, Putman warned that while every possible measure is being taken, CU cannot guarantee service in the face of possible Y2K problems.

"Because of the complexity of our distribution systems, CU cannot absolutely guarantee service," Putman stated in the letter. "In the unlikely event that our services are interrupted, CU takes steps to restore service as quickly as possible."

But Putman wants to put CU customers at ease, knowing that CU employees have been working for years to make their utilities Y2K-compliant.

"I want our customers to not panic," she said. "Don't do things you wouldn't normally do. If we do have an outage, we will fix it like any other. But we are really hoping it will be a non-event."

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