Future Tense

An Energy Dispute Between Serbia and Kosovo Is Slowing Europe’s Clocks

This photograph shows the main screen at the dispatching room of the national operating center of French electricity transport network operator RTE on February 26, 2018 in Saint-Denis, during a cold peak.
        French officials have opened emergency shelters for the homeless, with national forecaster Meteo France saying the so-called 'Moscow-Paris' cold snap will peak on February 26 and 27.
         / AFP PHOTO / GERARD JULIEN        (Photo credit should read GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images)
This photograph shows the main screen at the dispatching room of the national operating center of French electricity transport network operator RTE on Feb. 26 in Saint-Denis, Paris.

The relationship between Serbia and its former province, Kosovo, has been complicated, to say the least, for quite some time. Now a dispute between the two countries has apparently slowed digital clocks around Europe—and it may have been going on for close to two months.

Twenty-five countries on the continent are connected in an electric grid that runs on a synchronized frequency. The frequency is responsible for keeping time on many devices, such as digital clocks, oven clocks, and central heating timers—though not smartphones, according to BBC News. But since mid-January, the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity, or ENTSOE, reports that the system frequency has deviated, causing delays of up to six minutes on clocks on the grid.

The problem stems from a long-running feud over energy (among many other issues) between Serbia and Kosovo. In the late 1990s, the former province broke away from Serbia in a bloody war and then, in 2008, declared independence, which Serbia has never recognized. Since mid-January, Kosovo failed to produce enough energy to meet its needs. Serbia is legally obligated to make up the difference to stabilize the grid, but it didn’t, causing the frequency deviation. With the decreased frequency, the clocks began to run slow—just as they would run fast with an increase in frequency. The clocks can be manually set to the correct time, and they will automatically reset when the grid stabilizes.

The deviation stopped Tuesday when Kosovo generated enough energy to meet its needs, but not before 113 gigawatt hours of energy had been lost, ENTSOE spokeswoman Susanne Nies told BBC News. Nies said a surplus of energy will be pumped into the system in the next few weeks to normalize the grid and provide balance across the continent. However, ENTSOE warned that until Serbia and Kosovo solve their political disagreements, a deviation risk could remain.

Since the war ended 19 years ago, primarily Serb municipalities in the north of Kosovo have refused to pay for the energy they use. As a result, the rest of the population has had to pay extra. But in December, the Kosovo government announced consumers would no longer be required to pay for the North’s energy use. Instead, the Kosovo government will cover the costs.

Jaime Dunaway is a Slate intern.