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Power grid change may disrupt clocks
Question of the Day
Our power supply has been so precise that we've set our clocks by it. But time may be running out on that idea.
A yearlong experiment with the electric grid may make plug-in clocks and devices such as coffeemakers with programmable timers run up to 20 minutes fast.
The group that oversees the U.S. power grid is proposing a change that has the potential to disrupt electric clocks in schools, hospitals and other institutions, according to a company presentation obtained by the Associated Press. It may also mess with the timing of traffic lights, security systems, sprinklers and some personal computer software and hardware.
Since 1930, electric clocks have kept time based on the rate of the electrical current that powers them. If the current slips off its usual rate, clocks run a little fast or slow. Power companies now take steps to correct it and keep the frequency of the current, and the time, as precise as possible.
The experiment would allow more frequency variation than it does now without corrections. Officials say they want to try this to make the power supply more reliable, save money and reduce what may be needless efforts. The test is tentatively set to start in mid-July, but that could change.
Tweaking the power grid's frequency is expensive and takes a lot of effort, said Joseph H. McClelland, head of electric reliability for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
"Is anyone using the grid to keep track of time?" he asked. "Let's see if anyone complains if we eliminate it."
They will and they should, timekeepers say.
"A lot of people are going to have things break and they're not going to know why," said Demetrios Matsakis, head of the time service department at the U.S. Naval Observatory, one of two official timekeeping agencies in the federal government.
The changes, however, are out of the hands of timekeepers and in control of officials who supply the electrical power.
No one is quite sure what will be affected. This won't change the clocks in cellphones, GPS systems or even on computers, and it won't have anything to do with official U.S. time or Internet time.
But wall clocks and those on ovens and coffeemakers — anything that flashes "12:00" when it loses power — may be just a bit off every second, and that error can grow with time.
It's not easy figuring what will run fast and what won't. For example, VCRs or DVRs that get their time from cable systems or the Internet probably won't be affected, but those with clocks tied to the electric current will be off a bit, Mr. Matsakis said.
The North American Electric Reliability Corp. runs the nation's interlocking web of transmission lines and power plants. A June 14 company presentation spelled out the potential effects of the change: East Coast clocks may run as much as 20 minutes fast over a year, but West Coast clocks are only likely to be off by eight minutes. In Texas, it's only an expected speed-up of two minutes.
Some parts of the grid, like in the East, tend to run faster than others. Errors add up. If the grid averages just more than 60 cycles a second, clocks that rely on the grid will gain 14 seconds per day, according to the company's presentation.
Spokeswoman Kimberly Mielcarek said the company is discussing the test and gauging reactions to its proposal and may delay the experiment a bit.
Ms. Mielcarek wrote in an email the change is about making the grid more reliable and that correcting the frequency for time deviations can cause other unnecessary problems for the grid. She wrote that any problems from the test are only possibilities.
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