Sunday, August 01, 1999

Y2K fears boost sales of solar-power systems




BY JOLYN OKIMOTO
The Associated Press

        PHOENIX — 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 think 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.

        The next major drill is planned for Sept. 9, a day that experts say could foul up computer systems early because they may read the date “9-9-99” as an error message.

        Some authorities expect any Y2K electrical problems to be minimal, comparable with the brief outages following 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.

        Mr. Kenedi said sales at Golden Genesis were up 40 percent last year, as several thousand more customers bought solar systems. 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.

       



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