Europe Loses Six Minutes Due to Sagging Frequency and International Politics

You might be reading this six minutes early. Assuming that the Hackaday editors have done their job, this article should have appeared in your feed right on the half-hour. We have a set schedule to keep you supplied with the tastiest of hardware hacks and news. For some of you though perhaps there has been a treat, you’ve seen it and all the other stories six minutes early.

Have you perfected time travel? Sadly not unless there’s something you’d like to send to our tips line last week, but the culprit is equally fascinating. A dispute between Serbia and Kosovo has caused the frequency of the interconnected continental European electricity grid to drift below its usual 50 Hz figure for a sustained period, and as a result all clocks that use the mains frequency as a time reference have been getting ever slower.

How Can a Continental Power Grid Dip?

Think for a minute of a modern car on a hot day. When you turn on the air conditioning you will hear a slight dip in the engine revs as it accommodates the extra load. So it is with an alternating current power grid; a simple example is a power station supplying a city. In periods such as cold nights when the demands of the city go up, the result would be that the power station needs to work harder to satisfy it, and until that happens there would be a slight dip in its line frequency. Power grids compensate for this by increasing and decreasing the available generating capacity in real time, maintaining a mean frequency such that the “grid time” of a clock controlled by it matches an atomic clock as closely as possible over time.

Screenshot of Swissgrid live frequency data

In the case of continental Europe, grids across multiple countries are connected (PDF), and the task of maintaining that mean frequency falls upon Swissgrid which currently shows a sagging 49.976 Hz frequency. The time deviation of -346 seconds puts this close to a six minute loss and clocks running on this frequency will make you late to your next appointment.

It is at this point we leave the realm of electrical engineering and enter that of international politics, normally something far removed from Hackaday’s remit. It is fair to say that the history between Serbia and Kosovo is extremely delicate, and to understand some of the context of this story you should read about the war at the end of the 1990s. After the conflict the Serbian-majority region of what is now Kosovo refused to pay the Kosovan utility for its electricity, eventually leading to the Kosovans refusing to pay for that region’s share of the power received by Kosovo from Serbia. The resulting imbalance between demand and supply was enough to drag the supply frequency down across the whole continent, and though a short-term agreement has been reached the problem still remains on the grid.

Clocks and Mains Frequency

So if you are a continental European and you find yourself six minutes behind your British or American friends, don’t worry. We know that among our readers are people with significant experience in the power generation world, perhaps some of you would like to use your six minutes to give us a bit of insight in the comments. Meanwhile here at Hackaday we maintain an interest in the mechanics of power distribution even if some might say that it is Not A Hack. We’ve taken a look at utility poles, and examined how power grids are synchronised.

As for those slow clocks, the use of mains frequency to keep accurate time is quite brilliant and has been used reliably for decades. Tightly regulating grid frequency means that any clock plugged into an outlet can have the same dead-on accuracy for the cost of a few diodes. These clocks count the zero crossing of the alternating current. There may be moment to moment drifts but the power utility injects or removes cycles over the long term so the sum of crossings is dead on over the course of the day. It’s an interesting phenomenon to experiment with and that’s why we see it in microcontroller projects from time to time.

Monitor Power Consumption of Low-Power Devices

Perhaps the most important consideration to make when designing a battery-operated device of any kind is the power consumption. Keeping it running for longer between battery changes is often a key design point. To that end, if you need to know how small programming changes will impact the power consumption of your device then [Daniel] has a great tool that you might find helpful: an ESP8266-based live power meter.

The power meter itself is battery-powered via a 600 mAh battery and monitors an e-paper module, which also displays information about power consumption. It runs using a NodeMCU and measures voltage and current across a 100-ohm resistor to calculate the power use, although the resolution does start to get noisy when the device is in standby/sleep mode. One presumes this could be solved by changing the value of the resistor in order to get more accurate measurements at the expense of losing accuracy during moments of high power consumption.

While this power monitor was built specifically to monitor power consumption on this particular e-paper display project, it should be easily portable into other battery-based systems that need fine tuning in order to maximize battery life. As a bonus, the display is already included in the project. There are ways of getting even more information about your battery usage, although if power consumption is important than you may want to stick with a more straightforward tool like this one.

MIT Extracts Power from Temperature Fluctuations

As a civilization, we are proficient with the “boil water, make steam” method of turning various heat sources into power we feed our infrastructure. Away from that, we can use solar panels. But what if direct sunlight is not available either? A team at MIT demonstrated how to extract power from daily temperature swings.

Running on temperature difference between day and night is arguably a very indirect form of solar energy. It could work in shaded areas where solar panels would not. But lacking a time machine, or an equally improbable portal to the other side of the planet, how did they bring thermal gradient between day and night together?

This team called their invention a “thermal resonator”: an assembly of materials tuned to work over a specific range of time and temperature. When successful, the device output temperature is out-of-phase with its input: cold in one section while the other is hot, and vice versa. Energy can then be harvested from the temperature differential via “conventional thermoelectrics”.

Power output of the initial prototype is modest. Given a 10 degree Celsius daily swing in temperature, it could produce 1.3 milliwatt at maximum potential of 350 millivolt. While the Hackaday coin-cell challenge participants and other pioneers of low-power electronics could probably do something interesting, the rest of us will have to wait for thermal resonator designs to evolve and improve on its way out of the lab.

[via Engadget]

Careful Testing Reveals USB Cable Duds

What’s worse than powering up your latest build for the first time only to have absolutely nothing happen? OK, maybe it’s not as bad as releasing the Magic Smoke, but it’s still pretty bewildering to have none of your blinky lights blink like they’re supposed to.

What you do at that point is largely a matter of your troubleshooting style, and when [Scott M. Baker]’s Raspberry Pi jukebox build failed to chooch, he returned to first principles and checked the power cable. That turned out to be the culprit, but instead of giving up there, he did a thorough series of load tests on multiple USB cables to see which ones were suspect, with interesting results.

[Scott] originally used a cable with a USB-A on one end and a 3.5-mm barrel plug on the other with a switch in between, under the assumption that the plug on the Pi end would be more robust, as well as to have a power switch for the jukebox. Testing that cable using an adjustable DC load would prove that the cable was unfit for Pi duty, dropping the voltage to under 2 volts at a measly 500-mA load. Other cables proved much better under load, even those with USB mini jacks and even one with a 5.5-mm barrel. But the larger barrel-plug cable also proved to be a stinker when it was paired with an inline switch. In the video below, [Scott] walks through not only the testing process, but also gives a quick tour of his homebrew DC load.

The lesson is clear: not all USB cables are created equal, so caveat hacker. And if you’ve got a yen to check the cables in your junk bin like [Scott] did, this full-featured smart DC load might be just the thing.

Continue reading “Careful Testing Reveals USB Cable Duds”

Modernizing Puerto Rico’s Grid

After two massive hurricanes impacted Puerto Rico three months ago, the island was left with extensive damage to its electrical infrastructure. Part of the problem was that the infrastructure was woefully inadequate to withstand a hurricane impact at all. It is possible to harden buildings and infrastructure against extreme weather, and a new plan to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid will address many of these changes that, frankly, should have been made long ago.

Among the upgrades to the power distribution system are improvements to SCADA systems. SCADA allows for remote monitoring and control of substations, switchgear, and other equipment which minimizes the need for crews to investigate problems and improves reliability. SCADA can also be used for automation on a large scale, in addition to the installation of other autonomous equipment meant to isolate faults and restore power quickly. The grid will get physical upgrades as well, including equipment like poles, wire, and substations that are designed and installed to a more rigorous standard in order to make them more wind- and flood-tolerant. Additional infrastructure will be placed underground as well, and a more aggressive tree trimming program will be put in place.

The plan also calls for some 21st-century improvements as well, including the implementation of “micro grids”. These micro grids reduce the power system’s reliance on centralized power plants by placing small generation facilities (generators, rooftop solar, etc) in critical areas, like at hospitals. Micro grids can also be used in remote areas to improve reliability where it is often impractical or uneconomical to service.

While hurricanes are inevitable in certain parts of the world, the damage that they cause is often exacerbated by poor design and bad planning. Especially in the mysterious world of power generation and distribution, a robust infrastructure is extremely important for the health, safety, and well-being of the people who rely on it. Hopefully these steps will improve Puerto Rico’s situation, especially since this won’t be the last time a major storm impacts the island.

Weather Station Needs Almost No Batteries

While the ESP8266 has made its way into virtually every situation where a low-cost WiFi solution is needed, it’s not known as being a low-power solution due to the amount of energy it takes to run WiFi. [Alex] took this design constraint as more of a challenge though, and with the help of an ATtiny microcontroller was able to develop a weather station using an ESP8266 that only needs new batteries every 2-4 years.

While the ESP8266 module consumes a bit of power, the ATtiny excels in low-power mode. To take advantage of this, [Alex] designed the weather station using the ATtiny to gather data every two minutes, store the data in a buffer, and upload all of it in bursts every hour using the ESP8266. This means that the power-hungry WiFi chip can stay off most of the time, drastically limiting the power demands of the station. [Alex] mostly details the setup of the ATtiny and the ESP8266 on his project page, so this could be applied anywhere that low power and network connectivity are required.

As for the weather reporting capabilities, the station is equipped to measure temperature, light, and humidity. Presumably more could be added but this might increase the power demands for the weather station as a whole. Still, changing batteries once a year instead of once every two years might be a worthwhile trade-off for anyone else attempting such an ambitious project. Other additions to the weather station that we’ve seen before might include a low-power display, too.

Instrument Packed Pedal Keeps Track of Cyclist’s Power

Exactly how much work is required to pedal a bike? There are plenty of ways to measure the power generated by a cyclist, but a lot of them such as heavily instrumented bottom brackets and crank arms, can be far too expensive for casual use. But for $30 in parts you can build this power-measuring bike pedal. and find out just how hard you’re stoking.

Of course it’s not just the parts but knowing what to do with them, and [rabbitcreek] has put a lot of thought and engineering into this power pedal. The main business of measuring the force applied to the crank falls to a pair of micro load cells connected in parallel. A Wemos, an HX711 load-cell amp, a small LiPo pack and charging module, a Qi wireless charger, a Hall sensor, a ruggedized power switch, and some Neopixels round out the BOM. Everything is carefully stuffed into very little space in a modified mountain bike pedal and potted in epoxy for all-weather use. The Hall sensor keeps tracks of the RPMs while the strain gauges measure the force applied to the pedal, and the numbers from a ride can be downloaded later.

We recall a similar effort using a crank studded with strain gauges. But this one is impressive because everything fits in a tidy package. And the diamond plate is a nice touch.