Clocks may go a lit­tle cuckoo with power grid change

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - NEWS - By Seth Borenstein

WASHINGTON » Run­ning late for work or just miss that bus? You could have a good ex­cuse: Your elec­tric clock might be run­ning a bit cuckoo.

Be­cause of a change in fed­eral en­ergy reg­u­la­tions, some sci­en­tists say your trusty, older plug-in clock may be los­ing or gain­ing a few ticks over time.

Elec­tric clocks keep time based on the usu­ally stable and pre­cise pulses of the elec­tric cur­rent that pow­ers them. In the U.S., that’s 60 hertz (cy­cles per sec­ond). In the past, reg­u­la­tors re­quired power com­pa­nies to im­me­di­ately cor­rect the rate if it slipped off the mark. But that pre­ci­sion is ex­pen­sive to main­tain, so last year, the cor­rec­tion part was qui­etly elim­i­nated by the Fed­eral En­ergy Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion.

En­ergy of­fi­cials in­sist other stan­dards will keep the time in check, and so far the prob­lem has not amounted to more than a few sec­onds here and there. But some sci­en­tists looked at what could hap­pen with­out the time cor­rec­tion rule and con­cluded clocks could grad­u­ally go off-kil­ter if the grid’s power was de­liv­ered con­sis­tently at higher or lower rates than 60 hertz. That can hap­pen when power de­mand surges or slows be­cause of weather and the grid can’t ad­just right away.

This would af­fect clocks that get their power from a wall socket, such as alarm clocks and those on mi­crowaves and cof­feemak­ers. Cell­phones, newer clocks with GPS, those con­nected to ca­ble TV and mod­ern ones that don’t rely on the grid to keep time aren’t af­fected, ex­perts said.

The changes could be just matters of sec­onds and all but un­no­tice­able, but the time could drift by as much as seven and a half min­utes be­tween time changes in March and Novem­ber, when peo­ple re­set their clocks, ac­cord­ing to a study con­ducted by re­searchers at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Stan­dards and Tech­nol­ogy and the U.S. Naval Ob­ser­va­tory.

In some ex­treme cases, Amer­i­cans might miss their bus, parts of tele­vi­sion shows and even be slightly late or, shud­der, early for work, said Demetrios Mat­sakis, co-author of the study and chief time sci­en­tist at the Naval Ob­ser­va­tory.

“They’ll think some­thing is wrong with their clock but they won’t know what,” said Mat­sakis, co-author of the study.

The re­quest to re­tire the long-stand­ing time cor­rec­tion rule came from the North Amer­i­can Elec­tric Re­li­a­bil­ity Cor­po­ra­tion (NERC), which co­or­di­nates the grid. NERC stan­dards di­rec­tor Howard Gugel says newer stan­dards pre­vent veer­ing from 60 hertz so the rule isn’t needed. NERC has guide­lines for what to do if time corrections are nec­es­sary, he said in an email.

With­out the rule, the fixes will still be made but maybe not right away, said Terry Bilke, who works on time co­or­di­na­tion for the In­di­ana-based Mid­con­ti­nent In­de­pen­dent Sys­tem Op­er­a­tor, which pro­vides power to 15 states and Man­i­toba.

Ear­lier this year, in the east­ern half of the coun­try, a time er­ror of 10 sec­onds too fast went un­cor­rected for a week or more. It was dur­ing a bitter cold snap and util­i­ties didn’t think it was wise to tinker with power lev­els, said Bill Hen­son of the sys­tem op­er­a­tor for New Eng­land. Gen­er­ally, time er­rors are fixed ev­ery three to five days in the east­ern U.S., he said.

An advocate for the rule change said wor­ries about time slips are un­war­ranted. Don Badley, a recently re­tired sys­tems op­er­a­tions man­ager for the North­west Power Pool Cor­po­ra­tion, said any lin­ger­ing er­rors will be cor­rected when peo­ple re­set their clocks twice a year.


Plugged-in clocks may be los­ing or gain­ing as much as seven and a half min­utes be­tween May and Novem­ber 2018 be­cause of U.S. govern­ment en­ergy dereg­u­la­tion to save util­i­ties mil­lions of dol­lars, sci­en­tists say.

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