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Power Grid Experiment May Wreak Havoc On West Coast Clocks

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(credit: Howard Kingsmouth/Getty Images)

(credit: Howard Kingsmouth/Getty Images)

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LOS ANGELES (CBS) — If you plan on being anywhere on time over the next year, you may want to set your clock back about 20 minutes.

A nationwide experiment aimed at preventing a strain on the U.S. power grid could end up shorting out a large segment of the nation’s infrastructure, as well as make clocks on all plug-in devices and appliances run as much as 20 minutes fast.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) wants to alter the frequency of the energy current from its current rate of 60 cycles per second in an effort to make the power supply more reliable and save money — a move that one official expects to have potentially widespread consequences.

“Those clocks that get their time from the power grid will systematically walk away from the correct time,” Demetrios Matsakis, head of the time service department at the U.S. Naval Observatory, told KNX 1070.

While electric clocks have kept time based on the rate of the device’s electrical current since 1930, nowadays power companies intervene to maintain the frequency of that current when it deviates from its normal rate in order to keep time as precise as possible.

Matsakis said clocks begin gradually losing time during the day as the increasing demand on the power supply from air conditioners, microwaves and other appliances slows down the electrical cycles.

“Then during the night, the grid intentionally is sped up to get it back on time,” said Matsakis. “They’re going to stop speeding it back up.”

Although officials aren’t entirely certain what the effects will be, it could mean that people will gain or lose time at a different rate depending on their location.

Power companies have predicted that people on the West Coast could gain anywhere up to eight minutes a year, significantly less than the expected 20-minute gain for East Coast residents.

“There are several grids that are connected with each other, so you can look at each specific sub-grid and come to a different prediction as to how long it’ll take to lose by how much,” said Matsakis.

Cell phones, atomic clocks and computers are not likely to be affected as they keep time using a different source — for now.

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