Power Plant Millennium Experience

I suppose most people remember where they were New Year’s Eve at midnight on Saturday, January 1, 2000.  That is a night I will never forget.  Some people were hiding in self-made bunkers waiting for the end of the world which never came, others were celebrating at home with their families and friends.  I suppose some people went on with their lives as if nothing was different that night.  Not my family.  My wife and two children spent the night at the Power Plant waiting to see if all of the testing we had performed the last two years had covered all possible failures of the Y2K scare.

A small group of Power Plant Men had been chosen to attend a party with our families in the main conference room at the Power Plant.  All the food and drinks were supplied by the company.  Our Plant Manager, Bill Green was there.  Children were given the opportunity to rest in some other room as it reached their bedtimes.

Two years before this fateful night, the company was in full swing preparing for the Y2K computer disaster that had been foretold by those who knew that many computer systems only used two digits for the year instead of all four.  so, when the year 2000 rolled around, it would suddenly show up in the computer as 00, which didn’t compute as a year in some systems. After all, you can’t divide something by 00.  Suddenly, the time between events that just happened before midnight and those that happen just after midnight are 100 years apart in the wrong direction.

The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was completed in 1979 and 1980, so, my first thought was that by that time, computers were far enough along to know better.  The Instrument and Controls Power Plant Men along with the Plant Engineers decided that the best way to check their systems was to change the clocks on the computers one at a time to just before midnight on New Year’s Eve and see what happens.

I thought that was a pretty ingenious way to go about testing the computer systems.  By changing the clock on each system one at a time to New Year’s Eve and watching it roll over to the new Millennium, you learn right away if you have a problem, and you have contained the disaster to one system at a time while you test it.  By doing this, it turned out that there was a problem with one system at the Co-Generation plant at the Continental Oil Refinery 20 miles north of the plant.

I wrote a post about the Co-Generation Plant in a previous post: “What Coal-fired Power Plant Electricians Are Doing at an Oil Refinery“.  When it was discovered that the computer at the Conoco Oil Refinery Power Plant would crash on New Year’s Eve, it was decided that we would just roll the clock back to 1950 (or so), and we wouldn’t have to worry about it for another 50 years.  The thought was that by that time, this computer would be replaced.

This was the original thought which caused the Y2K problem in the first place.  No one thought in the 1960’s that their computer systems would still be operating when the year 2000 came around, so they didn’t bother to use four digits for the year.  Disk space was expensive at that time, and anything that could save a few bytes was considered an improvement instead of a bug.

My wife wasn’t too pleased when I told her where we were going to spend New Year’s Eve when Y2K rolled around, but then again, where would you rather be if a worldwide disaster happened and the electricity shutdown across the country?  I would think the Power Plant would be the best place.  You could at least say, “I was in the actual Control Room at a Power Plant watching them throw the switch and light up Oklahoma City!”  Besides, we usually spent New Year’s Eve quietly at home with our kids.

Even though we were fairly certain everything had been accounted for, it was the unknown computer system sitting out there that no one had thought about that might shut everything down.  Some system in a relay house in a substation, or some terrorist attack.  So, there we sat watching the New Year roll in on a big screen TV at one end of the break room.  Children’s movies were being shown most of the evening to keep the young occupied while we waited.

I thought that Jim Arnold, the Supervisor over the Maintenance Department, wanted me in the break room at the Power Plant so that he could keep an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t going to be causing trouble that night.  Jim never really trusted me….  I suppose that was because strange things would happen when I was around.  Of course, I would never do anything that would jeopardize the operation of the Power Plant, but that didn’t stop me from keeping Jim guessing.

No.  Not really.  I was there because I had a way with computers.  I was the computer go to person at the plant, and if anything happened to any of them, I would probably be the person that could whisper it back into service.  Also, if for some reason the Generators tripped, I was a switchman that could open and close switches in the substation and start the precipitator back up and run up to the top of the boiler if the boiler elevator broke down and get it started back up.

Except for my natural affinity for computers, any of the electricians in the Power Plant could do all those other things.  I think there was just a little “prejudice” left over about me from when Bill Bennett our past A foreman used to say, “Let Kevin do it.  He doesn’t mind getting dirty”  (or…. he likes to climb the boiler, or…. he likes confined spaces, or… Kevin likes to stay up at all hours of the night working on things… I could go on… that was Bill’s response when someone asked him who should do the really grimy jobs  — of course… to some degree…. he was usually right).

I was actually a little proud to be told that I was going to have to spend New Year’s Eve at the Power Plant.  I had almost 17 years of experience as a Power Plant Electrician at that time, and I felt very comfortable working on any piece of equipment in the plant.  If it was something I had never worked on before, then I would quickly learn how it worked… As I said, all the electricians in the plant were the same way.  It was our way of life.

At 11:00 pm Central Time, we watched as the ball dropped in Time Square in New York City.  The 10 or so Power Plant Men with their families sat in anticipation waiting…. and waiting… to see if the lights went out in New York….  Of course you know now that nothing happened, but we were ready to jump into a crisis mode if there were any reports of power failures across the country.

You see…. The electric grid on the east side of the Rocky Mountains is all connected together.  If the power grid were to go down in one area, it could try dragging down the rest of the country.  If protective relays in substations across the country don’t operate flawlessly, then a blackout occurs in a larger area than just one particular area covered by one electric company.

When relays operate properly, a blackout is contained in the smallest area possible.  There was only one problem…. Breakers in substations are now controlled by remote computer systems.  If those systems began to act erratic, then the country could have a problem.  This did not happen that night.

There was a contract worker in the engineering department at our plant who was at his home in the country during this time hunkered down in a bunker waiting for the end of the world as was foretold by the minister of this church.  He had purchased a large supply of food and water and had piled them up in his shelter along with a portable generator.  He and his family waited out the end of the world that night waiting for the rapture.  He told me about that a few months later.  He was rather disappointed that the world hadn’t ended like it was supposed to.  He was so prepared for it.

After 11 pm rolled around and there was no disaster on the east coast, things lightened up a bit.  I decided to take my son and daughter on a night tour of the plant.  So, we walked over to the control room where they could look at the control panels with all of the the lights and alarms.  Here is a picture of Jim Cave and Allen Moore standing in front of the Unit 1 Control Panel:

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Then I took each of them up to the top of the Boiler where you could look out over the lake at night from a view 250 feet high.  The Power Plant becomes a magical world at night, with the rumbling sounds from the boiler, the quiet hissing of steam muffled by the night.  The lights shining through the metal structure and open grating floors.

From the top of the boiler, you could look south and see the night lights from Stillwater, Pawnee and Perry.  Looking north, you could see Ponca City and the Oil Refinery at Conoco (later Phillips).  The only structure taller than the boilers are the smoke stacks.  There was always a special quality about the plant at night that is hard to put your finger on.  A sort of silence in a world of noise.  It is like a large ship on the ocean.  In a world of its own.

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset across the lake

We returned to the break room 20 minutes before midnight, where our plant manager Bill Green and Jim Arnold tested their radios with the Control Room to make sure we were all in contact with each other.  I had carried my tool bucket up to the break room in case I needed to dash off somewhere in a hurry.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

We felt confident by this time that a disaster was not going to happen when the clock rolled over to midnight.  When the countdown happened, and the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 counted down, We cheered “Happy New Year!” and hugged one another.  I think both of my children had dozed off by this point.

Bill Green called the control room.  The word came back that everything was business as usual.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  We waited around another hour just to make sure that nothing had shutdown.  By 1:00 am on January 1, 2000, Bill Green gave us the Green Light.  We were all free to return to our homes.

I gathered up my two children and my wife Kelly, and we drove the 25 miles back home to the comfort of our own beds.  When we went to bed early that morning after I had climbed into bed, I reached over and turned off the light on my nightstand.  When the light went out, it was because I had decided to turn it off.  Not because the world had suddenly come to an end.  A new Millennium had just begun.

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7 responses

  1. Great story! I was asleep in bed, confident that great power plant men had everything under control!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I worked midnight turn at the coke plant of Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel. Everyone was loud, boisterous, laughing over top that niggling thought that wasn’t quite a fear, and not quite comfortable.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember laying on the sofa, very pregnant and falling asleep while watching the ball drop in NYC. Funny, I haven’t thought about our daughter being a new millennium baby in a very long time! Thanks for helping to keep the lights on!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As a control room operator, I was scheduled to come in early in case everything went bad, prior to Y2K the local paper came out to the plant & took a picture of me operating the control board with a Y2K story, If you’d like me to send you a copy of the pic & news article just email me. It’s been great following your stories these years Kevin, I also have lots of other power plant pics you may enjoy. Ancient elevator relays come to mind.

    Liked by 1 person

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