Electric Grid, Voltage, Current, Power, Phase Conductor, Neutral Conductor, 3-Phase Power, Transmission Towers and Corona Discharge

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 15th, 2012

Technology 101

The Electric Grid is the Highways and Byways for Electric Power from the Power Plant to our Homes

Even our gasoline-powered cars operate on electricity.  The very thing that ignites the air-fuel mixture is an electric spark.  Pushed across an air-gap by a high voltage.  Because that’s something that high voltages do.  Push electrons with such great force that they can actually leave a conductor and travel through the air to another conductor.  Something we don’t want to happen most of the time.  Unless it’s in a spark plug in our gasoline engine.  Or in some movie prop in a cheap science fiction movie.

No.  When we use high voltage to push electrons through a conductor the last thing we want to happen is for the electrons to leave that conductor.  Because we spend a pretty penny to push those electrons out of a power plant.  And if we push the electrons out of the conductor they won’t do much work for us.  Which is the whole point of putting electricity into the electric grid.  To do work for us.

The electric grid.  What exactly is it?  The highways and byways for electric power.  Power plants produce electric power.  And send it to our homes.  As well as our businesses.  Power is the product of voltage and current.  In our homes something we plug into a 120V outlet that draws 8 amps of current consumes 960 watts.  Which is pretty big for a house.  But negligible for a power plant generator producing current at 20,000 volts.  For at 20,000 volts a generator only has to produce 0.48 amps (20,000 X 0.48 = 960).  Or about 6% of the current at 120V.

Between our Homes and the Power Plant we can Change that Current by Changing the Voltage

Current is money.  Just as time is money.  In fact current used over time helps to determine your electric bill.  Where the utility charges you for kilowatt hours (voltage X current X time).  (This would actually give you watt-hours.  You need to divide by 1000 to get kilowatt hours.)  The electric service to your house is a constant voltage.  So it’s the amount of current you use that determines your electric bill.  The more current you use the greater the power you use.  Because in the power equation (voltage X current) voltage is constant while current increases.

Current travels in conductors.  The size of the conductor determines a lot of costs.  Think of automobile traffic.  Areas that have high traffic volumes between them may have a very expensive 8-lane Interstate expressway interconnecting them.  Whereas a lone farmer living in the ‘middle of nowhere’ may only have a much less expensive dirt road leading to his or her home.  And so it is with the electric grid.  Large consumers of electric power need an Interstate expressway.  To move a lot of current.  Which is what actually spins our electrical meters.  Current.  However, between our homes and the power plant we can change that current.  By changing the voltage.  Thereby reducing the cost of that electric power Interstate expressway.

The current flowing through our electric grid is an alternating current.  It leaves the power plant.  Travels in the conductors for about 1/120 of a second.  Then reverses direction and heads back to the power plant.  And reverses again in another 1/120 of a second.  One complete cycle (travel in both directions) takes 1/60 of a second.  And there are 60 of these complete cycles per second.  Hence the alternating current.  If you’re wondering how this back and forth motion in a wire can do any work just think of a steam locomotive.  Or a gasoline engine.  Where a reciprocating (back and forth) motion is converted into rotational motion that can drive a steam locomotive.  Or an automobile.

The Voltages of our Electric Grid balance the Cost Savings (Smaller Wires) with the Higher Costs (Larger Towers)

An electric circuit needs two conductors.  When current is flowing away from the power plant in one it is flowing back to the power plant in the other.  As the current changes direction is has to stop first.  And when it stops flowing the current is zero.  Using the power formula this means there are zero watts twice a cycle.  Or 120 times a second.  Which isn’t very efficient.  However, if you bring two other sets of conductors to the work load and time the current in them properly you can remove these zero-power moments.  You send the first current out in one set of conductors and wait 1/3 of a cycle.  Then you send the second current out in the second set of conductors and wait another 1/3 cycle.  Then you send the third current out in the third set of conductors.  Which guarantees that when a current is slowing to stop to reverse direction there are other currents moving faster towards their peak currents in the other conductors.  Making 3-phase power more efficient than single-phase power.  And the choice for all large consumers of electric power.

Anyone who has ever done any electrical wiring in their home knows you can share neutral conductors.  Meaning more than one circuit coming from your electrical panel can share the return path back to the panel.  If you’ve ever been shocked while working on a circuit you switched off in your panel you have a shared neutral conductor.  Even though you switched off the circuit you were working on another circuit sharing that neutral was still switched on and placing a current on that shared neutral.  Which is what shocked you.  So if we can share neutral conductors we don’t need a total of 6 conductors as noted above.  We only need 4.  Because each circuit leaving the power plant (i.e., phase conductor) can share a common neutral conductor on its way back to the power plant.  But the interesting thing about 3-phase power is that you don’t even need this neutral conductor.  Because in a balanced 3-phase circuit (equal current per phase) there is no current in this neutral conductor.  So it’s not needed as all the back and forth current movement happens in the phase conductors.

Electric power travels in feeders that include three conductors per feeder.  If you look at overhead power lines you will notice they all come in sets of threes when they get upstream of the final transformer that feeds your house.  The lines running along your backyard will have three conductors across the top of the poles.  As they move back to the power plant they pass through additional transformers that increase their voltage (and reduce their current).  And the electric transmission towers get bigger.  With some having two sets of 3-conductor feeders.  The higher the voltage the higher off the ground they have to be.  And the farther apart the phase conductors have to be so the high voltage doesn’t cause an arc to jump the ‘air gap’ between phase conductors.  As you move further away from your home back towards the power plant the voltage will step up to values like 2.4kV (or 2,400 volts), 4.8kV and13.2kV that will typically take you back to a substation.  And then from these substations the big power lines head back towards the power plant.  On even bigger towers.  At voltages of 115kV, 138kV, 230kV, 345kv, 500kV and as high as 765kV.  When they approach the power plant they step down the voltage to match the voltage produced by its generators.

They select the voltages of our electric grid to balance the cost savings (smaller wires) with the higher costs (larger towers taking up more land).  If they increase the voltage so high that they can use very thin and inexpensive conductors the towers required to transmit that voltage safely may be so costly that they exceed the cost savings of the thinner conductors.  So there is an economic limit on voltage levels  As well as other considerations of very high voltages (such as corona discharge where high voltages create such a power magnetic field around the conductors that it may ionize the air around it causing a sizzling sound and a fuzzy blue glow around the cable.  Not to mention causing radio interference.  As well as creating some smog-causing pollutants like ozone and nitrogen oxides.)

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