File this one under “I’ll be danged, I didn’t know that.”
Over the last couple of months, the clocks on our oven and microwave have been…off. First a minute, then a couple, then five, then six. I hadn’t consciously thought about why, but simply did what we humans are so good at and adjusted, because I was too lazy to reset the clock. “Hm, the oven clock says it’s 12:45, so that means it’s 12:51.”
It turns out that this was happening all over Europe. And the reason is…Kosovo.
There are two important bits to understanding this bizarre situation:
1. Cheap electronic clocks don’t tell time via a quartz crystal or an internet connection, which are relatively expensive methods. Instead, they use the cheaper method of synchronizing to the frequency of the mains electricity supply, which should be precisely 50 Hz.
2. Europe has the world’s largest synchronous electricity grid. Regional power companies coordinate with each other to keep electricity moving smoothly across the borders of 25 countries — and to maintain the frequency at 50 Hz.
But from mid-January to March 6, a tiny bit more power was being consumed than produced, leading to an average Europe-wide grid frequency of 49.996 Hz. So for around two months, all of those cheap clocks that tell time by frequency synchronization were convinced that time was moving a tiny bit slower.
Why is it Kosovo’s fault?
Having only declared independence from Serbia ten years ago, Kosovo is not a unified nation (or even fully recognized). Many in the north still consider themselves Serbian and refuse to pay Kosovo for their electricity, even though that’s where it’s generated. Thus Kosovo is unable to bill for some of its output, which of course affects production. In January, Kosovo failed to balance this out, and for two months continued to produce less power than was used. This net loss affected the entire European grid, reducing the grid-wide frequency by 0.004 Hz.
And all of our cheap clocks ran slow.
The Powers That Be (literally, ha) tell us that Kosovo has rebalanced and that the grid is recovering, but getting back to 50 Hz might take a bit of time. And since the political situation that caused the issue is unsolved, there’s no telling when/if it might happen again.
In the meantime, my expensive and extremely accurate laptop clock tells me it’s currently 13:33. The oven says it’s 13:27. I guess it’s time to finally fix it.