Less than 200 days and counting: The Y2K problems surrounding transportation are intertwined with many other systems–any one of which could cause a breakdown in commerce on Jan. 1, 2000. One of these is the electric grid, the backbone of our country.

There are 3,200 independent utilities in the national electric grid. These are broken into four sub-grids. About 20 percent of the electricity used by utilities come from 103 nuclear power plants in 66 facilities nationwide. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), there won't be problems with the operation of nuclear power plants within the grids that supply electricity. It is the supply trains to the plants that could cause problems. Trains that supply the coal to run the plants operate on a computer system that may not be compliant by 2000. Compliance among oil and natural gas utilities is also progressing slowly.

Millennium specialists believe it will be the public utilities that will affect virtually all modes of transportation

The NRC said the localized outages are likely in the approximately 1,000 small rural electric utilities and there may be local or regional telecommunications failure. Utilities depend heavily on voice and data communications to monitor outages and electricity flow.

Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT) is the chair of the Senate Special Committee on Year 2000 Technology. He and other Y2K specialists believe it will be the public utilities that will affect virtually all modes of transportation. "If the power grid goes down because of connections in computers or because of embedded chips in power plants that shut those power plants down because of bad software somewhere, then it's all over," said Bennett. Sen. Bennett's Y2K committee suspects rural areas will lose power for an unspecified length of time. He also said he thinks only about 60 percent of public utilities will be compliant by 2000.

James Hoecker, chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which supervises the Y2K readiness of the oil and gas industries, doesn't agree with Bennett. Hoecker says in a December survey of 1,000 companies providing 88 percent of U.S. energy for consumption, operations and embedded systems were at 78 percent readiness. For business systems, the percentage is up to 86 percent from 55 percent. Hoecker hopes for even a higher percentage in the commission's next survey.