An Energy War in the Balkans Has Slowed Europe’s Electric Clocks by 5 Minutes

Serbia and Kosovo can't decide who will pay their energy bills, and it's disrupting Europe's power grid.

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Mar 7 2018, 3:03pm

Image: Shutterstock

If Europeans seem to be running later than usual recently, it’s not their fault—it’s the clocks.

On Saturday, the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSOE) put out a statement claiming that the Continental European Power System, an electric grid linking 25 European countries, has experienced a shortage of power supply since mid-January. This power supply shortage has caused all the non-quartz electric clocks in Europe to slow down by almost six minutes over the past month and a half.

Today, ENTSOE released another statement that pointed to an ongoing feud between Serbia and Kosovo over energy bills as the reason for the power shortage and clock slowdown. According to ENTSOE, the energy feud between Kosovo and Serbia has resulted in 113 Gigawatt-hours disappearing from the Continental European grid.

This, in turn, has caused the frequency of the grid to drop below its average of 50 Hertz (this is a measurement of the number of times the voltage on the energy grid hits its maximum value per second—for Europe, this voltage cycle happens 50 times per second). Many electric clocks keep time by measuring the frequency of the electric grid that is supplying the clock power. Thus, if the electric grid deviates from its normal frequency, it will cause the clock to slow down or speed up depending on if the voltage cycles are occurring more frequently or less frequently.

Read More: How the Master Clock Sets Time for the World

ENTSOE said that “this has never happened in any similar way in the CE power system [and] must cease,” claiming that a political solution will be needed in addition to a technical solution for the slowdown.

Kosovo and Serbia have a troubled history that culminated in a bloody war that cost over 13,000 lives in the late 90s. The war resulted in the Kosovo province breaking away from Serbia and formally declaring independence in 2008, which Serbia said it would never recognize. Since the war ended in 1999, there are four cities in northern Kosovo that have remained loyal to Serbia and have refused to pay the Kosovo government for the energy they use, according to Balkan Insight.

In December, the Kosovo government said it would cut its energy costs by 3.5 percent after it stopped paying the energy bills for the four cities after nearly 19 years. On Monday, the Kosovo government said it would allocate 1 million euros (approximately $1.25 million USD) for energy costs for the four cities as it worked out a long term solution to the energy feud.

The question of who will compensate for this loss has to be answered,” ENTSOE said in a statement.

According to Swissgrid, which operates Switzerland’s energy grid, the current frequency of the Continental European grid is 49.99 Hertz. That’s not a big deviation from the normal 50 Hertz, but over time the deviation adds up. At the time of writing, it’s caused clocks connected to the grid to slow by a little over 344 seconds. If the frequency were ever to drop below 47.6 Hertz, ENTSOE said devices would automatically disconnect from the grid.

In the meantime, ENTSOE said European citizens can reset their clocks manually and then readjust them again once the frequency of the grid has returned to normal. Alternatively, Europeans could just wait until the grid has returned to normal and the clocks will adjust themselves back to the correct time. The real difficulty isn’t technical, it’s political. When it comes to the energy feud between Kosovo and Serbia, working out a long term solution will take time—in every sense of the phrase.