Clocks in Europe are running late because of the Kosovo conflict

For weeks, digital clocks in Europe have been lagging behind. The unexpected source of the problem: Kosovo and Serbia, whose power grid operators can't find common ground.

Clock radios and timers on microwaves and stoves have gotten out of sync in Europe in recent weeks. The reason: Coordination problems between the power grid operators of Kosovo and Serbia.

Nature and Environment | 01.03.2018

Since mid January power companies in Kosovo and Serbia have failed to mutually balance their electricity grids in the case of irregularities. According to the grid codes of the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E), they are obliged to maintain a mean frequency of 50 hertz (oscillations per second) and help each other out if necessary.

But in reality, the mean frequency was lower most of this year. The reason: The operators did not talk to each other. This resulted in power deficits of the larger regional grid control area Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, also known as the "SSM Block".

Lower frequency means less energy

All in all the, frequency deviations amount to the equivalent of 113 Gigawatt hours (GWh) in lost energy. That is roughly the daily production of a larger scale brown coal power plant.

Nature and Environment | 21.02.2018

There are 36 member states in ENTSO-E with interconnected power grids, ranging from Spain to Norway and from Turkey to the British Isles. The recent reductions of the frequencies have affected 25 of the member-states.

This resulted in a situation in which clocks which are dependent on the power grid, such as clock radios or clocks built into home appliances like stoves or stereo systems, have lost time. Since the beginning of the problems in January it has amounted to roughly six minutes. 

Most of Kosovo's energy comes from brown coal fired power plants like here in Obiliq

Better to lose six minutes than suffer a blackout

To maintain the required frequency of 50 Hertz, the electricity grid uses a primary control. This is a technical mechanism which makes sure that power deviations will be quickly balanced by drawing additional energy from batteries or other sources in neighboring power grids — until additional power plants have been activated and reached their full power levels.

If balancing doesn't work, a five-step plan takes effect: If the frequency drops below 49.8 hertz, the first step takes effect, and additional primary regulation sources must be activated.

If that isn't enough to stabilize the network, operators may have to disconnect selected consumers or parts of the grid. In the fifth step, when the frequency drops below 47.5 hertz, a total blackout can occur.

A continuous frequency decline, as we're seeing now, had never previously happened in the joint European grid.

"I don't know of any other case where a partner has not met the rules over a longer period of time," says Christian Rehtanz, a professor at the Institute for Energy Systems at the Technical University of Dortmund. "The situation is new and needs to be fixed."

Read more: Smart tech propels Germany's switch to renewables

In the event of irregularities, neighboring power companies are supposed to help out

Rehtanz says he could imagine separate areas of the grid having to be disconnected — but he also warns of the consequences.

"The dilemma is that we should not risk triggering a blackout in any region. On the other hand, the political actions of some should not endanger the secure operation of the whole system."

A technical, but also political, problem

ENTSO-E has called on its member states to solve the problem with urgency, both in a technical and a political sense. Some states should not be put into a position where they have to provide "primary regulation energy" (the energy used to balance short term irregularities in the system) over a longer period of time in order to compensate for regional deficits. 

But, there is no reason for panic, either. Frequency deviations of up to one percent (49.5 to 50.5 hertz) for up to 44 hours per year are normal, says Jutta Jansen. She's a professor of electric power supply with renewable energies at the Technical University of Darmstadt. "This shows that the frequent but minimal deviations we've seen recently do not appear critical for operating the power grid."

And the fact that the clocks are running late is "an unpleasant, but not really dangerous, situation," she says. In the long run, the lost time could actually be compensated for by raising the frequency again slightly above 50 hertz.

So maybe it's better to wait before resetting your clock — otherwise, you might have to set it back again later.

1999: NATO intervention against Serbia

Traces of war

In the late 1990s, the conflict in Kosovo was escalating as tens of thousands of people fled the region. After all efforts at pacifying the region failed, NATO began carrying out air raids on military bases and strategic targets in Serbia on March 24, 1999. Eleven weeks later, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic finally gave in.

1999: NATO intervention against Serbia

Peaceful resistance fails

In the mid 1980s, protests began in Kosovo against government attempts to curtail the rights of the Albanian majority. The reprisals worsened in the 1990s. Ibrahim Rugova, leader of the political movement in Kosovo since 1989, tried to make Milosevic change course using peaceful resistance - without success.

1999: NATO intervention against Serbia

Armed guerilla warfare

An armed resistance formed in Kosovo. The self-appointed liberation army UCK started a brutal guerrilla war and carried out violent attacks against Serbs and Albanians whom they saw as collaborators. Serbia reacted with retaliatory measures: Houses were torched and shops plundered, as hundreds of thousands fled the region.

1999: NATO intervention against Serbia

Systematic expulsion

As time passed, the war became ever more brutal. Serbian forces increasingly attacked civilians with the aim of breaking the UCK's resistance and its support among the population. Many people looked for refuge in the forests. Trains and trucks transport thousands of people to the borders - without passports or other documents which could prove that their home had been in Kosovo.

1999: NATO intervention against Serbia

Last attempt at negotiation

Under the auspices of the US, France, the UK, Russia and Germany, the conflicting parties attended a conference in Rambouillet, France in February 1999 with the aim of working out a limited settlement guaranteeing Kosovo's autonomy. Representatives of Kosovo accepted the conditions of the deal, but their Serbian counterparts were not willing to make any concessions. The negotiations failed.

1999: NATO intervention against Serbia

'Humanitarian intervention'

On March 24, 1999, NATO began bombarding military and strategic targets in Serbia and Kosovo in order to stop the violence against Albanians. Germany joined the military action, known as Operation Allied Force. It was NATO's first war in its 50-year history - and that without the official backing of the UN Security Council. Russia sharply condemned the intervention.

1999: NATO intervention against Serbia

Infrastructure destroyed

Next to military installations, NATO also attacked transportation networks such as railroad tracks and bridges. During the following 79 days and nights, the alliance carried out more than 37,000 operations with 20,000 rockets and bombs striking Serbian territory and killing countless civilians - what NATO referred to as "collateral damage."

1999: NATO intervention against Serbia

Poison clouds over Pancevo

Industrial sites were also among the targets. NATO bombs hit chemical plants and a fertilizer factory in the town of Pancevo near the capital, Belgrade. Huge amounts of toxic substances made their way into rivers, soil and the air, with grave health consequences for the local population. Serbia accused NATO of having used depleted uranium ammunition, as well as cluster and fragmentation bombs.

1999: NATO intervention against Serbia

War against war propaganda

In order to deprive Slobodan Milosevic of his most important propaganda tool, NATO decided to attack Serbia's public television station in Belgrade. The Serbian government, although told of the attack in advance, withheld the information from the public. Sixteen people lost their lives in the bombing.

1999: NATO intervention against Serbia

Off target

In Kosovo, NATO bombs inadvertently hit a group of Albanian refugees, killing an estimated 80 people. More "collateral damage" occurred when NATO bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing four people. The incident led to a severe diplomatic crisis between Beijing and Washington.

1999: NATO intervention against Serbia

Horrific outcome

In early June, communications out of Belgrade showed that Milosevic was finally willing to make concessions. NATO brought an end to its raids on June 19. During the air strikes, thousands of people were killed, 860,000 refugees were displaced and Serbia's economy and infrastructure were largely destroyed. Kosovo was placed under the administration of the United Nations.