I've heard rumors that the power line frequency is kept stable and accurate by syncing it with atomic clocks. Is this true? What kind of accuracy does it have? Is this true everywhere?


Here's what wikipedia says:

Regulation of power system frequency for timekeeping accuracy was not commonplace until after 1926 and the invention of the electric clock driven by a synchronous motor. Network operators will regulate the daily average frequency so that clocks stay within a few seconds of correct time. In practice the nominal frequency is raised or lowered by a specific percentage to maintain synchronization. Over the course of a day, the average frequency is maintained at the nominal value within a few hundred parts per million. In the synchronous grid of Continental Europe, the deviation between network phase time and UTC is calculated at 08:00 each day in a control center in Switzerland, and the target frequency is then adjusted by up to ±0.01 Hz (±0.02%) from 50 Hz as needed, to ensure a long-term frequency average of exactly 24×3600×50 cycles per day is maintained. In North America, whenever the error exceeds 10 seconds for the east, 3 seconds for Texas, or 2 seconds for the west, a correction of ±0.02 Hz (0.033%) is applied. Time error corrections start and end either on the hour or on the half hour. A real-time frequency meter for power generation in the United Kingdom is available online. Smaller power systems may not maintain frequency with the same degree of accuracy.

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    \$\begingroup\$ UK power line frequency meter, pretty interesting \$\endgroup\$ – Nick T Dec 13 '10 at 17:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ There is a website that shows the current difference between UTC and grid time for Europe. So in normal operation it can be more than 30s off. There where incidents where it was almost 400s off. \$\endgroup\$ – Josef says Reinstate Monica Jun 4 '19 at 13:12

This thread indicates the frequency may vary from 59 to 61 cycles during the day, but midnight to midnight they adjust the frequency to be exactly 5184000 cycles per 24 hour period.

There are also three (or four, not clear) separate grids in the US that do not maintain a phase relationship between them.

So -- short term timing (e.g. a few minutes or a couple of hours), within a fraction of a per cent. Long term, very accurate.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Any idea why the correction happens at a specific time of day, instead of continuously? \$\endgroup\$ – endolith Feb 16 '13 at 19:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ I believe the reason the frequency varies during the day is because the demand on the grid changes, causing more or less of a load on the rotating generators which vary their speed and thus their frequency. However these devices have a huge amount of inertia, so it would be impossible to make instantaneous corrections to their speed. So it becomes a control problem. Trying to do corrections when the load is changing is just going to make the frequency variations worse. By waiting until early in the morning, when the load is minimal, it would be much easier to correct. \$\endgroup\$ – tcrosley Feb 17 '13 at 6:31

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