Europe's Clocks Are Losing Time, and Here's Why

A digital alarm clock.
The power deviations in Europe are impacting digital clocks like those found in alarms by up to 6 minutes. (Image credit: ryabuha kateryna/Shutterstock)

Europe's digital clocks are running behind schedule, and it's the former Yugoslavia's fault. 

A squabble over a shared power grid between Serbia and its erstwhile territory Kosovo is to blame for "continuous significant power deviations" across most of Europe, causing certain types of electric clocks to run up to 6 minutes slow, according to the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E), the Brussels-based organization responsible for the continental grid.

Digital clocks such as those found in alarms, heaters, ovens and microwaves rely on the frequency of a power grid, rather than a quartz crystal, to keep time. Europe, like most of Africa and Asia, taps an alternating current of 50 hertz; as such, every 50 oscillations of alternating current in these places equals 1 second of grid time. For the United States, which maintains a standard frequency of 60 hertz, 60 oscillations is the equivalent of a second. [5 of the Most Precise Clocks Ever Made]

Even an infinitesimally minor deviation in this flow can add up. When power fluctuations led the European network's frequency to fall to 49.996 hertz in the middle of January, for instance, it resulted in 113 gigawatt hours of lost energy.

The disruption has affected much of the continent — as clocks in 25 countries have lost time — with the exception of the United Kingdom, the Nordic countries and parts of the former Soviet Union, which are not as beholden to the continental grid.

The problem began when a power plant in Kosovo, which seceded from Serbia in 2008, went down for repairs, diminishing the electrical supply. Serbia, despite a 2015 agreement to preserve the integrity of the European grid, refused to make up the difference.

Still, there are signs that this wrinkle in timekeeping will smooth over. "Deviation stopped yesterday after Kosovo took some steps, but it will take some time to get the system back to normal," ENTSO-E spokeswoman Susanne Nies told Reuters Tuesday (March 6).

The political row is far from over, however, given that Serbia doesn't support Kosovo's independence.

"We will try to fix the technicalities … but the question of who will compensate for this loss has to be answered," Nies said.

Originally published on Live Science.

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