As the 1990s drew to a close, the world was gripped with concern over Y2K, code for Year 2000. The fear was that millions of computers around the globe were going to go haywire on New Year’s Day because they had not been programmed to recognize the numerical dawning of a new century. 

Companies, electric cooperatives included, spent billions (some say trillions) fixing the “millennium bug,” the unintentional result of programmers using only the last two digits of years without thinking about what might happen when those two digits were 00.

Joyce McQuillan, supply chain manager for Connexus Energy, a co-op based in Ramsey, Minnesota, suspected trouble when she toured a supplier’s manufacturing plant in the spring of 1998 and discovered that a machine that made rubber elbows for transformers relied on a date-sensitive instrument to measure the ingredients in the rubber. 

“I asked the operator if they’ve been checking these machines for compliance with the Year 2000,” McQuillan recalled in October 1998. “He didn’t know what I was talking about.”

She worried that Y2K would cripple the plant and, in turn, undermine the co-op’s ability to make repairs in the event of a major power outage.

The co-op formed a Y2K task force in 1997, recruiting representatives from every department. They set to work taking inventory, testing, repairing, retesting and replacing and planning for contingencies. 

Any piece of digital equipment with a date code got the task force’s attention. On the operations side, that meant meters, regulators, breakers, reclosers, the SCADA system. On the administrative side, every function from monthly billing to payroll to benefits to invoicing.

“I grossly underestimated the time it would take to manage this,” admitted Al Ferber, information systems manager, who, along with McQuillan, managed the task force. Both were devoting most of their time to it, and the number of hours per week was growing. 

They spent six months completing the inventory and setting priorities. After that, McQuillan focused on six distributors that supplied critical parts and materials to the co-op. Early on, she sent the vendors questionnaires, but doing so yielded little more than form letters saying they were working on the problem. So McQuillan applied more pressure, imploring the vendors to give her weekly status reports.

She reached out to the distributors because it was difficult to talk directly to the manufacturers, who were at the far end of the supply chain, along with their own suppliers. “We’re so concerned about automation in the manufacturing plants—everything is so dependent on computers and robots.” 

McQuillan and Ferber decided that the co-op had to be self-reliant. It couldn’t depend on a vendor’s test results. And it had to have contingency plans for every administrative and operational function.

Other co-ops agreed. “If we think it’s critical and we think it’s going to cause us problems, we have to test it [ourselves,]” said Greg Farley, information systems administrator at La Plata Electric Association, a distribution co-op based in Durango, Colorado.

January 1, 2000, came and not much bad happened. The lights didn’t go off and office work didn’t come to a halt. Around the globe there was a collective sigh of relief.