Time is slowing down in Europe. Here's why.

Image: Microwave oven in France
A salesman demonstrates a microwave oven to customers at a Conforama store in Paris. Copyright Fabrice Dimier Bloomberg via Getty Images file
By Alex Johnson with NBC News Tech and Science News
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Forget Daylight Savings, millions of clocks in 25 countries across Europe have lost almost 6 minutes since mid-January because of an electricity dispute between Serbia and Kosovo.

Albert Einstein theorized 113 years ago that under certain circumstances, time can slow down.

It's happening now.

The industry group for Europe's power grid says many digital clocks in 25 countries across the continent, from Spain to Turkey and from Poland to the Netherlands, are losing time — almost 6 minutes since mid-January. And it wants politicians to fix the problem.

A salesman demonstrates a microwave oven to customers at a Conforama store in Paris.
A salesman demonstrates a microwave oven to customers at a Conforama store in Paris.Fabrice Dimier

The European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity, or ENTSO-E, reported this week that a dispute between Serbia and its former province Kosovo has led to a dip in the grid's average electric frequency, which in Europe is supposed to be a steady 50 hertz.

(It's 60 hertz in the United States, in case you were wondering, which is why you need special adapters when you take your electronics with you on vacation.)

As the power frequency slows down, so do the clocks in millions of appliances that sync with the power grid to keep accurate time — basically, all non-quartz-based clocks in appliances like microwave ovens, digital alarm clocks and heating and air conditioning systems.

(There is an explanation of how this works here on the website of SwissGrid, Switzerland's electric operator.)

As of this week, such clocks "show currently a delay of close to six minutes," ENTSO-E said.

ENTSO-E pinned the blame on Serbia, which provisionally agreed three years ago to coordinate Kosovo's power distribution. But that agreement has never been implemented, because Serbia still doesn't officially recognize Kosovo's independence — unlike the European Union and the United States, which did so in 2008.

The two countries share the old Yugoslavian power grid, but because of their disagreement, Serbia can't stop Kosovo from drawing more power than it generates, ENTSO-E said. As a result, the entire European grid is running below power, so clocks that sync themselves to it are — quite literally — leaking time.

Nothing like that has ever happened before, said ENTSO-E, which said the problem is too big for it to solve alone.

"As there is also a political dimension with impact on the functioning of the electricity system, ENTSO-E is urging European and national governments and policy makers to take swift action," it said.

"If no solution can be found at [the] political level, a deviation risk could remain," it warned.

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