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How Conflict in the Balkans Is Screwing Up Europe’s Clocks

Kosovo and Serbia’s clash over energy dropped the oscillation of the Euro grid, making clocks run as much as six minutes behind

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Hostility between Balkan nations has led to several deadly wars—including World War I—genocide and the destabilization of Europe. Now, that enmity is causing... electric clocks across Europe to run six minutes slow.

As the Guardian reports, the time discrepancy comes because the nations of Kosovo and Serbia have not been pulling their weight when it comes to producing power for the 25-nation European power grid. The problem is that Kosovo has used 113 gigwatts of electricity more than it generates since January. Serbia is responsible for covering any of Kosovo’s slack to keep the grid stable, but it has not done so. That meant Kosovo had to siphon power off other parts of the grid, messing with the fine balance. Amy Held at NPR reports that the result is that the European grid has been running at roughly 49.996 hertz, or frequency of oscillations, per second, instead of the normal 50.

So…what does that have to do with clocks? Marshall Brain at How Stuff Works reports that many electric clocks, like the ones on microwaves, coffeepots and bedside tables actually keep track of time by counting the oscillations per second in the electricity it receives. For instance, a clock designed to run on the 50Hz Euro grid advances one second after it counts 50 oscillations (it's a little more complex than that but that's the gist).

Over time, that small deviation from 50Hz has added up to the six-minute delay for Euroclocks. Susanne Nies, spokesperson for the power-grid lobby ENTSO-E, tells Fatos Bytyci and Maja Zuvela at Reuters that while the "[d]eviation stopped [Tuesday] after Kosovo took some steps," it will take weeks for things to normalize.

That does not completely solve the problem, which is—like many things Balkan—political. In 2008, Kosovo, a majority Albanian province of Serbia, declared independence. While the U.N. and European Union recognize Kosovo, Serbia has not. The Guardian reports that the majority Serb northern region of Kosovo, which is still loyal to Serbia, refuses to pay Kosovo for the electricity it uses. Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement to share their power grid in 2015, but political tensions mean it has not been implemented. In other words, electricity production in the area remains a mess.

In the meantime, ENTSO-E warns that the situation means the Euro-grid is at risk for future deviations. “This is beyond the technical world. Now there needs to be an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo about this lack of energy in the Kosovo system,” Claire Camus, a separate ENTSO-E spokesperson, tells the Guardian. “You need to solve it politically and then technically.”

Europe is worried about more than electricity and clocks when it comes to the Balkans. The region has historically been a powder keg and seems on the verge of more upheavals. Jennifer Rankin at The Guardian reports that Russian support for authoritarian regimes in the region is once again destabilizing the patchwork of nations and ethnicities in southeastern Europe. Serbia, in particular, is becoming more pro-Russia and anti-European Union. Turkey is also beginning to exert influence in the region. “The Balkans can easily become one of the chessboards where the big power game can be played,” EU foreign policy minister Federica Mogherini said after visiting the region last year.

One solution to all these problems is taking Europe back to the days of pendulum clocks. The gentle ticking of all those pendulums might just calm everyone down a bit.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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