In recent months, Europeans have noticed that time escapes them. It's not just your imagination: throughout the continent, clocks built into appliances such as ovens, microwaves and coffee makers have been running up to six minutes more slowly. The unlikely cause? A dispute between Kosovo and Serbia over who pays the electricity bill.
To make sense of all this, you need to know that clocks in many household devices use the frequency of electricity to keep time. Electric power is sent to our homes in the form of alternating current, in which the direction of the electricity flow changes several times per second. (The way in which this system was established is complex, but the advantage is that it allows electricity to be transmitted efficiently.) In Europe, this frequency is 50 hertz, which means an alternating current of 50 times per second. In America, it's 60 Hz.
Since the 1930s, manufacturers have taken advantage of this feature to have time. Every clock needs a metronome, something with a constant rhythm that helps to space every second, and an alternating current provides one, saving the cost of the additional components. Customers simply set the time in their oven or microwave once, and the frequency keeps it accurate.
At least, that is the theory. But because this method of measuring time depends on the electric frequency, when the frequency changes, so do the clocks. That is what has been happening in Europe.
Deceleration only affects digital clocks that use electricity to keep time, such as those in microwaves and ovens. Photo by Thomas Ricker / The Verge
The news was announced this week by ENTSO-E, the agency that oversees the huge and unique electricity network that connects 25 European countries. He said that variations in the frequency of CA caused by imbalances between supply and demand in the network have been playing with clocks. The imbalance is itself caused by a political argument between Serbia and Kosovo. "This is a very delicate dispute that materializes in energy issues," Susanne Nies, spokesperson for ENTSO-E, told The Verge.
Basically, after Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, there were long negotiations over the custody of services such as telecommunications and electricity infrastructure. As part of the ongoing agreements (Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state), four Serb-majority districts in northern Kosovo stopped paying for electricity. At first, Kosovo covered this by charging the rest of the country more, but last December, he decided he had had enough and stopped paying. This led to an imbalance: the Kosovar districts were still using electricity, but nobody was paying to put it on the network.
This may sound strange, but it is because electricity networks operate in a system of supply and demand. As Stewart Larque of the National Grid of the United Kingdom explains, he wants to keep the same amount of electricity connected to the grid from the power plants, since the number of homes and businesses is taking it away. "He thinks it's like driving a car uphill at a constant speed," Larque told The Verge. "You must carefully balance acceleration with gravity." (The United Kingdom itself has not been affected by these variations because it has its own network).
"They are taking advantage of the system for free."
This balance is enormously complex and requires constant control of supply and demand and communication between electricity companies across Europe. The dispute between Kosovo and Serbia, however, has put this system out of control, since the two governments have refused to recognize what the other is doing.
"The Serbs [in Kosovo]according to our sources, have not been paying for their electricity, so they are free in the system," says Nies.
The dispute reached a temporary resolution on Tuesday, when the Kosovo government stepped forward and agreed to pay a fee of € 1 million for the electricity used by the Serb-majority municipalities. "It is a temporary decision, but as such it saves our network functionality," said Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj. However, in the longer term, it will be necessary to reach a new agreement.
There have been rumors that the increase in demand in northern Kosovo was caused by the crypto currency miners who moved to the area to take advantage of the free electricity. But according to NTSO-E, this is not the case. "It has nothing to do with the cryptocurrency," Nies told The Verge. "There is a lot of speculation about it, and it has no relation whatsoever." The representatives of the Serbian electricity operator, EMS, refused to answer questions about this.
For now, "Kosovo is in balance again," says Nies. "They are producing enough [electricity] to supply the population, the next step is to bring the system back to normal, which will take several weeks." In other words, time will again be normal for Europeans, if they remember to change their watches.