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Government's planned power grid experiment could affect clocks' ability to keep time

SUBNET Solutions Inc | Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Proposed smart grid rules could have far-reaching consequences for American consumers, according to a published report.

The Associated Press reports that a yearlong experiment on the nation's power supply network could result in a host of malfunctioning electronic equipment including traffic lights, security systems, computers and even alarm clocks.

Electrically powered clocks work by telling time based on the rate of the electric current that feeds them, according to Popular Science. Utilities have historically kept such pulses constant in part to keep clocks precise, but industry analysts assert that by allowing for greater variation in the flow of electricity, utilities could save energy and decrease costs.

As a result, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is mulling a bill that would allow utilities to shift the way they deliver energy. FERC head Joe McClelland said the new method would benefit utilities and could serve as a boon to the country's energy portfolio; he also questioned whether consumers would care about the proposed shift.

"Let’s see if anyone complains if we eliminate it," he said recently. "Is anyone using the grid to keep track of time?"

Allowing utilities to have a more variable electricity frequency would make the country's power supply network more reliable, officials assert. Still, the test of the revised system, which is slated to begin in mid-July, will likely be costly and takes a concerted effort by both the government and power generators, McClelland said.

The change would have no effect on clocks built into cell phones, GPS systems or computers, but those built into ovens and other appliances will be affected, FERC officials said.

What's more, analysts disagree over whether a number of other electronic systems will be affected. Cable boxes, which are one of the biggest consumers of energy of all household products, will likely not be affected, but DVD players tied to the electric current would, according to Demetrios Matsakis, the head of the time service department at the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Different parts of the country will experience noticeable shifts in time-keeping devices on appliances, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) stated in a report. Clocks in the East Coast, for example, could run as much as 20 minutes fast over a year, while those on the West Coast are projected to only be off by about 8 minutes. Clocks in Texas are only expected to be affected by about 2 minutes per year. That, according to analysts, is because parts of the grid tend to run faster than others. 

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