User:Cedars/Electric power system draft

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A steam turbine used to provide electric power.

An electric power system (or simply power system) is a network of electrical components used to supply, transmit and utilise electric power. The quintessential example of an electric power system is the network that supplies a region's homes and industry with power - for sizable regions, this power system is known as the grid and can be broadly divided into the generators that supply the power, the transmission system that carries the power from the generating centres to the load centres and the distribution system that feeds the power to nearby homes and industries. Smaller power systems are also found in industry, hospitals, commercial buildings and homes. The majority of these systems rely upon three-phase AC power - the standard for large-scale power transmission and distribution across the modern world. Specialised power systems that do not always rely upon three-phase AC power are found in aircraft, electric rail systems, ocean liners and automobiles.


A sketch of the Pearl Street Station

In 1881 two electricians built the world's first power system at Godalming in England. It was powered by a power station consisting of two waterwheels that produced an alternating current that in turn supplied seven Siemans arc lamps at 250 volts and 34 incandescent lamps at 40 volts.[1] However supply to the lamps was intermittent and in 1882 Thomas Edison and his company, The Edison Electric Light Company, developed the first steam powered electric power station on Pearl Street in New York City. The Pearl Street Station initially powered around 3,000 lamps for 59 customers.[2][3] The power station used direct current and operated at a single voltage. Since the direct current power could not be easily transformed to the higher voltages necessary to minimise power loss, the possible distance between the generators and load was limited to around half-a-mile (800 m).[4]

That same year in London Lucien Gaulard and John Dixon Gibbs demonstrated the first transformer suitable for use in a real power system. The practical value of Gaulard and Gibbs' transformer was demonstrated in 1884 at Turin where the transformer was used to light up forty kilometres (25 miles) of railway from a single alternating current generator.[5] Despite the success of the system, the pair made some fundamental mistakes. Perhaps the most serious was connecting the primaries of the transformers in series so that switching one lamp on or off would affect the brightness of other lamps further down the line. Following the demonstration George Westinghouse, an American entrepreneur, imported a number of the transformers along with a Siemens generator and set his engineers to experimenting with them in the hopes of improving them for use in a commercial power system.

One of Westinghouse's engineers, William Stanley, recognised the problem with connecting transformers in series as opposed to parallel and also realised that making the iron core of a transformer a fully-enclosed loop would improve the voltage regulation of the secondary winding. Using this knowledge he built a much improved alternating current power system at Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1886.[6]

By 1890 the power industry had flourished and power companies had built literally thousands of power systems (both direct and alternating current) in the United States and Europe - these networks were effectively dedicated to providing electric lighting. During this time a fierce rivalry known as the "War of Currents" emerged between Edison and Westinghouse over which form of transmission (direct or alternating current) was superior. In 1891, Westinghouse installed the first major power system that was designed to drive an electric motor and not just provide electric lighting. The installation powered a 100 horsepower (75 kW) synchronous motor at Telluride, Colorado.[7] On the other side of the Atlantic, Oskar von Miller built a 20 kV 176 km three-phase transmission line from Lauffen am Neckar to Frankfurt am Main for the Electrical Engineering Exhibition in Frankfurt.[8] In 1895, after a protracted decision-making process, the Adams No. 1 generating station at Niagara Falls began transferring three-phase alternating current power to Buffalo at 11 kV. Following completion of the Niagara Falls project, new power systems increasingly chose alternating current as opposed to direct current for electrical transmission.[9]

Although the 1880s and 1890s were seminal decades for the development of power systems, developments continued throughout the 20th and 21st century. In 1936 the first commercial HVDC (high voltage direct current) line using Mercury arc valves was built between Schenectady and Mechanicville, New York. HVDC had previously been achieved by installing direct current generators in series (a system known as the Thury system) although this suffered from serious reliability issues.[10] In 1957 Siemens demonstrated the first solid-state rectifier (solid-state rectifiers are now the standard for HVDC systems) however it was not until the early 1970s that this technology was used in commercial power systems.[11] In recent times, many important developments have come from extending innovations in the information technology and telecommunications field to the power engineering field. For example, the development of computers meant load flow studies could be run more efficiently allowing for much better planning of power systems. Advances in information technology and telecommunication also allowed for remote control of a power system's switchgear and generators.

Basics of electric power[edit]

An external AC to DC power adapter used for household appliances

Electric power is the mathematical product of two quantities: current and voltage. These two quantities can vary with respect to time (AC power) or can be kept at constant levels (DC power).

Most refridgerators, air conditioners, pumps and industrial machinary use AC power where as most computers and digital equipment use DC power (the digital devices you plug into the mains typically have an internal or external power adapter to convert from AC to DC power). AC power has the advantage of being easy to transform between voltages and is able to be generated and utilised by brushless machinary. DC power remains the only practical choice in digital systems and can be more economical to transmit over long distances at very high voltages (see HVDC).[12][13]

The ability to easily transform the voltage of AC power is important for two reasons: Firstly, power can be transmitted over long distances with less loss at higher voltages. So in power systems where generation is distant from the load, it is desirable to step-up (increase) the voltage of power at the generation point and then step-down (decrease) the voltage near the load. Secondly, it is often more economical to install turbines that produce higher voltages than would be used by most appliances, so the ability to easily transform voltages means this mismatch between voltages can be easily managed.[12]

Solid state devices, which are products of the semiconductor revolution, make it possible to transform DC power to different voltages, build brushless DC machines and convert between AC and DC power. Nevertheless devices utilising solid state technology are often more expensive than their traditional counterparts, so AC power remains in widespread use.[14]

Components of power systems[edit]

From the power system that supplies your home to the power system found in a hybrid car, there are a wide range of power systems however there are certain components that are common to most systems. This section introduces some of those components.

Generators, batteries and other power supplies[edit]

The majority of the world's power still comes from coal-fired power stations like this.

All power systems have one or more sources of power. For some power systems, the source of power is external to the system but for others it is part of the system itself - it is these internal power sources that are discussed in the remainder of this section. Direct current power can be supplied by batteries, fuel cells or photovoltaic cells. Alternating current power is typically supplied by a rotor that spins in a magnetic field (a device known as a turbine). Throughout history there have been a wide range of techniques used to spin a turbine's rotor, from water heated to steam using fossil fuels (including coal, gas and oil) to water itself (hydroelectric power) to wind (wind power). Even nuclear power typically depends on water heated to steam using a nuclear reaction.[15]

The speed at which the rotor spins in combination with the number of generator poles determines the frequency of the alternating current produced by the generator. All generators on a single system will target a set frequency. If the load on the system increases, the generators will require more torque to spin at that speed. In addition, depending on how the poles are fed, alternating current generators can produce a variable number of phases of power. A higher number of phases leads to more efficient power system operation but also increases the infrastructure requirements of the system.

If connecting to the grid, frequency and number of phases are usually a given (typically three-phase at 50 or 60 Hz depending upon national standards). However there are a myriad of other considerations too. These range from the obvious: How much power should the generator be able to supply? What is an acceptable length of time for starting the generator (some generators can take hours to start)? Is the availability of the power source acceptable (some renewables are only available when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing)? To the more technical: How should the generator start (some turbines act like a motor to bring themselves up to speed in which case they need an appropriate starting circuit)? What is the mechanical speed of operation for the turbine and consequently what are the number of poles required? What type of generator is suitable (synchronous or asynchronous) and what type of rotor (squirrel-cage rotor, wound rotor, salient pole rotor or cylindrical rotor)?


A toaster is great example of a single-phase load that might appear in a residence. Toasters typically draw 2 to 10 amps at 110 to 260 volts consuming around 600 to 1200 watts of power

In addition to sources of power, all power systems have loads that use the electrical energy to perform a function. These loads range from household appliances to industrial machinary. Most loads expect a certain voltage and, for alternating current devices, a certain frequency and number of phases. The appliances found in your home, for example, will typically be single-phase operating at 50 or 60 Hz with a voltage between 110 and 260 volts (depending on national standards). An exception exists for centralized air conditioning systems as these are now typically three-phase because this allows them to operate more efficiently. All devices in your house will also have a wattage, this specifies the amount of power the device consumes. At any one time, the net amount of power consumed by the loads on a power system must equal the net amount of power produced by the supplies less the power lost in transmission.

Making sure that the voltage, frequency and amount of power supplied to the loads is in line with expectations is one of the great challenges of power system engineering. However it is not the only challenge, in addition to the power used by a load to do useful work (termed real power) many alternating current devices also use an additional amount of power because they cause the alternating voltage and alternating current to become slightly out-of-sync (termed reactive power). The reactive power like the real power must balance (that is the reactive power produced on a system must equal the reactive power consumed) and can be supplied from the generators, however it is often more economical to supply such power from capacitors (see "Capacitors and reactors" below for more details).


Probably the simplest component of a power system, conductors carry power from the generators to the load. In a grid, conductors may be classified as belonging to the transmission system, which carries large amounts of power at high voltages (typically more than 50 kV) from the generating centres to the load centres, or the distribution system, which feeds smaller amounts of power at lower voltages (typically less than 50 kV) from the load centres to nearby homes and industry.

Theoretically any metal that is solid up to at least 150 degrees Celsius could be used as a conductor. In practice, choice of conductor needs to be decided based upon considerations such as cost, resistivity (which affects transmission losses) and other desirable characteristics of the metal like tensile strength. In the past copper, with better resistivity and tensile strength than aluminium, was the conductor of choice for most power systems, however recent increases in the price of copper have led to it being largely deprecated in favour of aluminium.

Conductors in exterior power systems may be placed overhead or underground. Overhead conductors are largely still unshielded although some utilities have now deprecated unshielded overhead conductors in the distribution system due to conductor clashing (a fire hazard). For safety reasons, all conductors used underground or in interior power systems are shielded typically with a material such as cross-linked polyethylene. Conductors are almost always stranded, that is drawn into separate stands before being twisted together, this increases the flexibility and robustness of the conductors.[16]

Conductors are typically rated (that is, assigned a maximum current they can carry). Ratings are necessary because as current flow increases through a conductor it heats up. For shielded conductors, the rating is typically determined by the temperature at which the shielding insulation will fail. For unshielded overhead conductors, the rating is determined by the point at which the sag of the conductors would become unacceptable. In the past, most utilities specified a summer and winter rating for overhead conductors with winter ratings being higher due to the lower ambient temperature. However for the vast majority of systems this distinction is now moot as the highest load now occurs in the summer due to increases in the adoption of air conditioners.

Capacitors and reactors[edit]

The majority of the load in a typical AC power system, in fact all of the load attributable to motors, is inductive - that is it causes the voltage to lead the current. Since the voltage and current are out-of-sync, this leads to the emergence of a "useless" form of power known as reactive power. Reactive power is still lost during transmission but it does no useful work at the end-points because it simply bounces back and forth between the reactive power source and load. This reactive power can be provided by the generators themselves but it is often cheaper to provide it through capacitors, hence capacitors are often placed near inductive loads to reduce demands on the power system infrastructure. In the case of a modern home that contains a fridge and air conditioner (both appliances that use motors), a capacitor would often be installed at the local zone substation (where the transmission system is fed to the distribution system) to counter-act the inductive loads of several thousand such homes. This capacitor would then be automatically switched in depending upon load conditions.

The role of reactors, which consume reactive power as opposed to supplying it, is more complex. While it is true the majority of the load in a typical AC power system is inductive, the transmission lines which supply power may be either inductive or capacitive depending upon the load. In light load conditions, where the loading on transmission lines is well below the surge impedance loading, the efficiency of the power system may actually be improved by switching in reactors. Reactors installed in series in a power system also limit rushes of current flow, small reactors are therefore almost always installed in series with capacitors to limit the current rush associated with switching in a capacitor. Series reactors can also be used to limit fault currents.

One of the problems with both circuit breaker switched capacitors and reactors (the norm for capacitors and reactors) is that they are designed to be on or off for several minutes at a time. This leads to a far clunkier response to reactive power variations when compared with generators. A solutions comes in the form of static VAR compensators and static synchronous compensators. Briefly, static VAR compensators work by switching in capacitors using thyristors as opposed to circuit breakers allowing capacitors to be switched-in and switched-out within a single cycle. This provides a far more refined response than circuit breaker switched capacitors. Static synchronous compensators take it a step further by achieving reactive power adjustments using only power electronics.

Power electronics[edit]

Power electronics are semi-conductor based devices that are able to switch quantities of power ranging from a few hundred watts to several hundred megawatts. Despite their relatively simple function, their speed of operation (typically in the order of nanoseconds[17]) means they are capable of a wide range of tasks that would be difficult or impossible with conventional technology. The classic function of power electronics is rectification, or the conversion of AC-to-DC power, power electronics are therefore found in almost every digital device that is supplied from AC source either as an adapter that plugs into the wall (see photo) or as component internal to the device. High-powered power electronics can also be used to convert AC power to DC power for long distance transmission in a system known as HVDC. HVDC is used because it proves to be more economical than similar high voltage AC systems for very long distances (hundreds to thousands of kilometres). HVDC is also desirable for interconnects because it allows frequency independence thus improving system stability. Power electronics are also essential for any power source that is required to produce an AC output but that by its nature produces a DC output. Thus they feature prominently in many photovoltaic installations both industrial and residential.

Power electronics also feature in a wide range of more exotic uses. They are at the heart of all modern electric and hybrid vehicles. While it would be theoretically possible to build an electric vehicle using a conventional DC motor with a commutator thus eliminating the power electronics, it is almost always preferable due to durability concerns to use a brushless DC motor - a device that relies upon power electronics. Power electronics also feature in practically all modern petrol-powered vehicles, this is because the power provided by the car's batteries alone is insufficient to provide ignition, air-conditioning, internal lighting, radio and dashboard displays for the life of the car. So the batteries must be recharged while driving using DC power from the engine - a feat that is typically accomplished using power electronics. Some electric railway systems also use DC power and thus make use of power electronics to feed grid power to the trains. In addition jet airliners and ships will typically have DC subsystems that are supplied using power electronics. Power electronics are also at the heart of the variable-speed wind turbine. Put simply, conventional wind turbines require significant engineering to ensure they operate at some ratio of the system frequency (the ratio being accounted for using gears), however by using power electronics this requirement can be eliminated as can the gears leading to quieter, more flexible and (at the moment) more costly wind turbines. A final example of one of the more exotic uses of power electronics comes from the previous section where the fast-switching times of power electronics were used to provide more refined reactive compensation to the power system.

Protective devices[edit]

All practical power systems contain protective devices that serve two purposes: firstly, to minimise harm to people and animals that may come in contact with the power system and secondly, to isolate faults and protect the power system and its various elements from damage. The quintessential protective device is the fuse. When the current through a fuse exceeds a certain threshold, the fuse element melts producing an arc across the resulting gap that is then extinguished. Given that fuses can be built as the weak point of a system, fuses are ideal for protecting circuitry from damage. Fuses however have two problems: First, after they have functioned, fuses must be replaced as they cannot be reset. This can prove inconvenient if the fuse is at a remote site or a spare fuse is not on hand. And second, fuses are typically inadequate as the sole safety device in most power systems as they allow current flows well in excess of that that would prove lethal to a human or animal.

The first problem is resolved by the use of circuit breakers - devices that can be reset after they have broken current flow. In modern systems that use less than 10 kW, miniature circuit breakers are typically used. These devices combine the mechanism that initiates the trip (by sensing excess current) as well as the mechanism that breaks the current flow in a single unit. Some miniature circuit breakers operate solely on the basis of electromagnetism. In these miniature circuit breakers, the current is run through a solenoid, and, in the event of excess current flow, the magnetic pull of the solenoid is sufficient to force open the circuit breaker's contacts (often indirectly through a tripping mechanism). A better design however arises by inserting a bimetallic strip before the solenoid - this means that instead of always producing a magnetic force, the solenoid only produces a magnetic force when the current is strong enough to deform the bimetallic strip and complete the solenoid's circuit.

In higher powered applications, the devices that initiate a trip (also known as protective relays) are separate from the circuit breaker. Early relays worked based upon electromagnetic tricks similar to those mentioned in the previous paragraph, modern relays though are essentially application-specific computers that determine whether to trip based upon readings from the power system. Different relays will initiate trips depending upon different protection schemes. For example, an overcurrent relay might initiate a trip if the current on any phase exceeds a certain threshold where as a set of differential relays might initiate a trip if the sum of currents between them indicates there may be current leaking to earth. The circuit breakers in higher powered applications are different too. Air is typically no longer sufficient to quell the arc that forms when the contacts are forced open so a variety of techniques are used. The most popular technique at the moment is to keep the chamber enclosing the contacts flooded with sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) - a non-toxic gas that has superb arc-quelling properties. Other techniques are discussed in the reference.[18]

The second problem, the inadequacy of fuses to act as the sole safety device in most power systems, is probably best resolved by the use of residual current devices (RCDs). In any properly functioning electrical appliance the current flowing into the appliance on the active line should equal the current flowing out of the appliance on the neutral line. A residual current device works by monitoring the active and neutral lines and tripping both lines if it notices a difference.[19] Residual current devices require a separate neutral line for each phase and to be able to trip within a time frame before harm occurs. This is typically not a problem in most residential applications where standard wiring provides an active and neutral line for each appliance (that's why your power plugs always have at least two tongs) and the voltages are relatively low however these issues do limit the effectiveness of RCDs in other applications. It is worth emphasising though that, even with the installation of an RCD, exposure to electricity still has the potential to prove lethal.

SCADA systems[edit]

SCADA is an acronym for Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition. In power systems, SCADA systems are used to perform tasks such as switching on generators, controlling generator output and switching in or out capacitor banks. The first SCADA systems implemented consisted of a panel of lamps and switches at a central console near the controlled plant (although they would not have been called SCADA systems at the time). The lamps provided feedback on the state of plant (the data acquisition function) and the switches allowed adjustments to the plant to be made (the supervisory control function). Today, SCADA systems are much more sophisticated and, due to advances in communication systems, the consoles controlling the plant no longer need to be near the plant itself. Instead in today's power systems, it is increasingly common for plant to be controlled from a central remote site with equipment similar to (if not identical to) a desktop computer. The ability to control such plant through computers has increased the need for security and already there have been reports of cyber-attacks on such systems causing significant disruptions to power systems.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Godalming Power Station". Engineering Timelines. Retrieved 2009-05-03. 
  2. ^ Williams, Jasmin. "Edison Lights The City". New York Post. Retrieved 2008-03-31. 
  3. ^ Grant, Casey. "The Birth of NFPA". National Fire Protection Association. Retrieved 2008-03-31. 
  4. ^ "Bulk Electricity Grid Beginnings" (PDF) (Press release). New York Independent System Operator. Retrieved 2008-05-25. 
  5. ^ Katz, Evgeny (2007-04-08). "Lucien Gaulard". Retrieved 2008-05-25. 
  6. ^ Blalock, Thomas (2004-10-02). "Alternating Current Electrification, 1886". Retrieved 2008-05-25.  Unknown parameter |publishing= ignored (help)
  7. ^ Foran, Jack. "The Day They Turned The Falls On". Retrieved 2008-05-25. 
  8. ^ Voith Siemens (company) (2007-02-01). HyPower (PDF). p. 7. 
  9. ^ "Adams Hydroelectric Generating Plant, 1895". IEEE. Retrieved 2008-05-25. 
  10. ^ "A Novel but Short-Lived Power Distribution System". IEEE. 2005-05-01. Retrieved 2008-05-25. 
  11. ^ Gene Wolf (2000-12-01). "Electricity Through the Ages". Transmission & Distribution World. 
  12. ^ a b All About Circuits [Online textbook], Tony R. Kuphaldt et al., last accessed on 17 May 2009.
  13. ^ Roberto Rudervall, J.P. Charpentier and Raghuveer Sharma (March 7–8, 2000). "High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) Transmission Systems Technology Review Paper" (PDF). World Bank.  (also here)
  14. ^ Ned Mohan, T. M. Undeland and William P. Robbins (2003). Power Electronics: Converters, Applications, and Design. United States of America: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 0-471-22693-9. 
  15. ^ Sources of Energy, CBC News Online, 20-May-2004.
  16. ^ Naval Engineering Training Series (Figure 1.6), U.S. Navy (republished by, 2007.
  17. ^ Switching Characteristics of Thyristors During Turn-On, [], April 9, 2009.
  18. ^
  19. ^ How does an RCD work?, PowerBreaker, accessed on 14-Mar-10.
  20. ^ Report: Cyber Attacks Caused Power Outages in Brazil, Kevin Poulsen, WIRED Threat Level blog, November 7, 2009.

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