Originally created 09/15/99

Y2K bug lights up solar power



Chris Mueller says she's been concerned about the environmental impact of her own energy consumption for years, but it was the so-called millennium bug that prompted her to do something about it.

Ms. Mueller is installing a solar energy system in her home to reduce her reliance on power generated by burning coal -- and as a backup to make sure a Y2K-related power failure won't dampen her New Year's cheer.

"A gear kind of clicked," said Ms. Mueller, a social services worker who lives 25 miles north of Harrisburg, Pa.

Others nationwide apparently are of a like mind. Solar electric companies around the country are reporting spikes in sales attributed partly to people feeling Y2K jitters.

"It's a combination of people who have a grand-scale vision of systems going down and people who've been concerned about this for a long time and think the time's right," said Ron Kenedi, vice president of Golden Genesis Co., a manufacturer and distributor of solar electric systems based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The Y2K problem, or millennium bug, may occur in computers and microchips programmed to recognize only the last two digits of a year; they may malfunction if they misread the year 2000 as 1900.

Some believe the bug will cause the nation's power grids to crash when clocks strike midnight on Jan. 1, leading to blackouts.

"I think the East Coast (power grid) is more susceptible than the West Coast because it's older. We don't know which system will have problems. Hopefully, it's no system. But whatever happens, I'll still be running on my system," Ms. Mueller said.

Power companies say they have the situation under control. Utilities say a nationwide test of their systems April 9 revealed no serious problems. But only backup communication systems were tested, not generators or transmission lines.

Some authorities expect any Y2K electrical problems to be minimal, comparable to the brief outages after storms. Wallace Reynolds, a spokesman for Arizona's Salt River Project, the nation's third-largest utility company, said customers will need nothing more than a flashlight and a candle.

Still, some aren't reassured and that's where the alternatives come in.

Sales at Golden Genesis were up 40 percent last year as several thousand more customers purchased solar systems, Mr. Kenedi said. This year, sales are on track to increase by 70 percent, he said.

Golden Genesis advertises solar systems that range from $1,599 for a 1,100-watt system -- enough power for lights, a refrigerator, entertainment systems and a computer during short power outages -- to $8,199 for a "Y2K Survivor System," a complete power system that includes a propane-powered refrigerator-freezer.

Other companies also see Y2K as an opportunity to promote products they have long believed in.

"Whether it's Y2K or ice storms, we now have the technology to solve backup power problems that we didn't have in the '70s. Y2K has conveniently put us on the radar screen for backup power," said Bill Roush, owner of Solar Electric Systems of Kansas City, who has sold solar systems for 20 years.

Warren Lauzon of Northern Arizona Wind & Sun in Phoenix called the recent rise in interest unprecedented in two decades of business. In the past year, sales have swelled to about $4 million from about $3 million, Mr. Lauzon said. He's also increased his staff to 12 people from eight.

"I know that a large part of the business is Y2K-related, and some people are using hype and scare tactics. I try to emphasize that, Y2K or not, it's always a good idea," Mr. Lauzon said.

Even Alan Bunnell, a spokesman for Tucson Electric, agreed, citing environmental concerns associated with fossil fuels.

"It's good that people are interested in alternative energy. We hope that will continue even beyond the Y2K issue, because alternative energy holds a lot of promise," Mr. Bunnell said.

But he said solar has a long way to go, noting that only 150 megawatts worth of solar panels are manufactured worldwide each year. By comparison, Tucson Electric has the capability to produce 1,700 megawatts through conventional means for about 325,000 households and businesses.

Kent Morgan of Indianapolis, who sells solar and other energy-saving products on the Internet, said he's surprised by who's buying backup power.

"They're business people and doctors. There are very few `survivalists' at all. And many of them are computer types, which worries me. I keep wondering what they know that I don't know," Mr. Morgan said.

Michael Novotny is one of those "computer types."

He is building a wind-powered system for his home in Tracy, Calif., and he plans to add solar power, too.

Mr. Novotny, a former electrician, he says he is wary of the millennium bug. "The grid may not be there. Even if a portion goes down, there may be a chain reaction that occurs," Mr. Novotny said.

He added, "Am I a doomsayer? No. But there will be a bit of a disruption."