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Electrical Grid


An electrical grid is an interconnected network for delivering electricity from suppliers to consumers.


General layout of electricity networks. Voltages and depictions of electrical lines are typical for Germany and other European systems


In the power industry, grid is a term used for an electricity network which may support all or some of the following four distinct operations:

1. Electricity generation
2. Electric power transmission
3. Electricity distribution
4. Electricity control

The sense of grid is as a network, and should not be taken to imply a particular physical layout, or breadth. Grid may be used to refer to an entire continent's electrical network, a regional transmission network or may be used to describe a subnetwork such as a local utility's transmission grid or distribution grid.

Electricity in a remote location might be provided by a simple distribution grid linking a central generator to homes. The traditional paradigm for moving electricity around in developed countries is more complex. Generating plants are usually located near a source of water, and away from heavily populated areas. They are usually quite large in order to take advantage of the economies of scale. The electric power which is generated is stepped up to a higher voltage-at which it connects to the transmission network. The transmission network will move (wheel) the power long distances-often across state lines, and sometimes across international boundariesuntil it reaches its wholesale customer (usually the company that owns the local distribution network). Upon arrival at the substation, the power will be stepped down in voltage—from a transmission level voltage to a distribution level voltage. As it exits the substation, it enters the distribution wiring. Finally, upon arrival at the service location, the power is stepped down again from the distribution voltage to the required service voltage(s).


Structure of distribution grids

The structure, or "topology" of a grid can vary considerably. The physical layout is often forced by what land is available and its geology. The logical topology can vary depending on the constraints of budget, requirements for system reliability, and the load and generation characteristics.

Classic electricity distribution grids-simple "radial" trees, sending power from a source (red dot representing power generation or a substation) to delivery points (blue dots representing homes, businesses, or other subnetworks).

The cheapest and simplest topology for a distribution or transmission grid is a radial structure. This is a tree shape where power from a large supply radiates out into progressively lower voltage lines until the destination homes and businesses are reached.
Most transmission grids require the reliability that more complex mesh networks provide.
Other topologies used are looped systems and tied ring networks...

1. Electricity generation

Electricity generation is the process of generating electric energy from other forms of energy.
The fundamental principles of electricity generation were discovered during the 1820s and early 1830s by the British scientist Michael Faraday. His basic method is still used today: electricity is generated by the movement of a loop of wire, or disc of copper between the poles of a magnet.
For electric utilities, it is the first process in the delivery of electricity to consumers. The other processes, electricity transmission, distribution, and electrical power storage and recovery using pumped storage methods are normally carried out by the electric power industry.
Electricity is most often generated at a power station by electromechanical generators, primarily driven by heat engines fueled by chemical combustion or nuclear fission but also by other means such as the kinetic energy of flowing water and wind. There are many other technologies that can be and are used to generate electricity such as solar photovoltaics and geothermal power.

Methods of generating electricity

There are seven fundamental methods of directly transforming other forms of energy into electrical energy:

                    Static electricity, from the physical separation and transport of charge (examples: triboelectric effect and lightning)

                    Electromagnetic induction, where an electrical generator, dynamo or alternator transforms kinetic energy (energy of motion) into electricity

                    Electrochemistry, the direct transformation of chemical energy into electricity, as in a battery, fuel cell or nerve impulse

                    Photoelectric effect, the transformation of light into electrical energy, as in solar cells

                    Thermoelectric effect, direct conversion of temperature differences to electricity, as in thermocouples, thermopiles, and Thermionic converters.

                    Piezoelectric effect, from the mechanical strain of electrically anisotropic molecules or crystals

                    Nuclear transformation, the creation and acceleration of charged particles (examples: betavoltaics or alpha particle emission)

Static electricity was the first form discovered and investigated, and the electrostatic generator is still used even in modern devices such as the Van de Graaff generator and MHD generators. Electrons are mechanically separated and transported to increase their electric potential.

Almost all commercial electrical generation is done using electromagnetic induction, in which mechanical energy forces an electrical generator to rotate. There are many different methods of developing the mechanical energy, including heat engines, hydro, wind and tidal power.

The direct conversion of nuclear energy to electricity by beta decay is used only on a small scale. In a full-size nuclear power plant, the heat of a nuclear reaction is used to run a heat engine. This drives a generator, which converts mechanical energy into electricity by magnetic induction.

Most electric generation is driven by heat engines. The combustion of fossil fuels supplies most of the heat to these engines, with a significant fraction from nuclear fission and some from renewable sources. The modern steam turbine (invented by Sir Charles Parsons in 1884) currently generates about 80 percent of the electric power in the world using a variety of heat sources.

All turbines are driven by a fluid acting as an intermediate energy carrier. Many of the heat engines just mentioned are turbines. Other types of turbines can be driven by wind or falling water.

Sources include:

  • Steam - Water is boiled by:
    • Nuclear fission,
    • The burning of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, or petroleum). In hot gas (gas turbine), turbines are driven directly by gases produced by the combustion of natural gas or oil. Combined cycle gas turbine plants are driven by both steam and natural gas. They generate power by burning natural gas in a gas turbine and use residual heat to generate additional electricity from steam. These plants offer efficiencies of up to 60%.
    • Renewables. The steam generated by:
      • Biomass
      • The sun as the heat source: solar parabolic troughs and solar power towers concentrate sunlight to heat a heat transfer fluid, which is then used to produce steam.
      • Geothermal power. Either steam under pressure emerges from the ground and drives a turbine or hot water evaporates a low boiling liquid to create vapour to drive a turbine.
      • Ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC ): uses the small difference between cooler deep and warmer surface ocean waters to run a heat engine usually a turbine.
  • Other renewable sources:
    • Water (hydroelectric) - Turbine blades are acted upon by flowing water, produced by hydroelectric dams or tidal forces.
    • Wind - Most wind turbines generate electricity from naturally occurring wind. Solar updraft towers use wind that is artificially produced inside the chimney by heating it with sunlight, and are more properly seen as forms of solar thermal energy.



Reciprocating engines

Small electricity generators are often powered by reciprocating engines burning diesel, biogas or natural gas. Diesel engines are often used for back up generation, usually at low voltages. However most large power grids also use diesel generators, originally provided as emergency back up for a specific facility such as a hospital, to feed power into the grid during certain circumstances. Biogas is often combusted where it is produced, such as a landfill or wastewater treatment plant, with a reciprocating engine or a microturbine, which is a small gas turbine.


Photovoltaic panels

Unlike the solar heat concentrators mentioned above, photovoltaic panels convert sunlight directly to electricity. Although sunlight is free and abundant, solar electricity is still usually more expensive to produce than large-scale mechanically generated power due to the cost of the panels. Low-efficiency silicon solar cells have been decreasing in cost and multijunction cells with close to 30% conversion efficiency are now commercially available. Over 40% efficiency has been demonstrated in experimental systems. Until recently, photovoltaics were most commonly used in remote sites where there is no access to a commercial power grid, or as a supplemental electricity source for individual homes and businesses. Recent advances in manufacturing efficiency and photovoltaic technology, combined with subsidies driven by environmental concerns, have dramatically accelerated the deployment of solar panels. Installed capacity is growing by 40% per year led by increases in Germany, Japan, California and New Jersey.


Other generation methods

Various other technologies have been studied and developed for power generation. Solid-state generation (without moving parts) is of particular interest in portable applications. This area is largely dominated by thermoelectric (TE) devices, though thermionic (TI) and thermophotovoltaic (TPV) systems have been developed as well. Typically, TE devices are used at lower temperatures than TI and TPV systems. Piezoelectric devices are used for power generation from mechanical strain, particularly in power harvesting. Betavoltaics are another type of solid-state power generator which produces electricity from radioactive decay. Fluid-based magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) power generation has been studied as a method for extracting electrical power from nuclear reactors and also from more conventional fuel combustion systems. Osmotic power finally is another possibility at places where salt and sweet water merges (e.g. deltas, ...)


Electrochemical electricity generation is also important in portable and mobile applications. Currently, most electrochemical power comes from closed electrochemical cells ("batteries"), which are arguably utilized more as storage systems than generation systems, but open electrochemical systems, known as fuel cells, have been undergoing a great deal of research and development in the last few years. Fuel cells can be used to extract power either from natural fuels or from synthesized fuels (mainly electrolytic hydrogen) and so can be viewed as either generation systems or storage systems depending on their use.



2. Electric power transmission

Electric power transmission or "high voltage electric transmission" is the bulk transfer of electrical energy, from generating power plants to substations located near to population centers. This is distinct from the local wiring between high voltage substations and customers, which is typically referred to as electricity distribution. Transmission lines, when interconnected with each other, become high voltage transmission networks. These are typically referred to as "power grids" or just "the grid".

Historically, transmission and distribution lines were owned by the same company, but over the last decade or so many countries have liberalized the electricity market in ways that have led to the separation of the electricity transmission business from the distribution business.

Transmission lines mostly use three-phase alternating current (AC), although single phase AC is sometimes used in railway electrification systems. High-voltage direct-current (HVDC) technology is used only for very long distances (typically greater than 400 miles, or 600 km); submarine power cables (typically longer than 30 miles, or 50 km); or for connecting two AC networks that are not synchronized.

Electricity is transmitted at high voltages (110 kV or above) to reduce the energy lost in long distance transmission. Power is usually transmitted through overhead power lines. Underground power transmission has a significantly higher cost and greater operational limitations but is sometimes used in urban areas or sensitive locations.

A key limitation in the distribution of electricity is that, with minor exceptions, electrical energy cannot be stored, and therefore must be generated as needed. A sophisticated system of control is therefore required to ensure electric generation very closely matches the demand. If supply and demand are not in balance, generation plants and transmission equipment can shut down which, in the worst cases, can lead to a major regional blackout. To reduce the risk of failures, electric transmission networks are interconnected into regional, national or continental wide networks thereby providing multiple redundant alternate routes for power to flow should (weather or equipment) failures occur. Much analysis is done by transmission companies to determine the maximum reliable capacity of each line which is mostly less than its physical or thermal limit, to ensure spare capacity is available should there be any such failure in another part of the network.


3. Electric power distribution

Electricity distribution is the final stage in the delivery (before retail) of electricity to end users. A distribution system's network carries electricity from the transmission system and delivers it to consumers. Typically, the network would include medium-voltage (less than 50 kV) power lines, electrical substations and pole-mounted transformers, low-voltage (less than 1 kV) distribution wiring and sometimes electricity meters.


4. Control

To ensure safe and predictable operation the components of the transmission system are controlled with generators, switches, circuit breakers and loads. The voltage, power, frequency, load factor, and reliability capabilities of the transmission system are designed to provide cost effective performance for the customers.



Operators of long transmission lines require reliable communications for control of the power grid and, often, associated generation and distribution facilities. Fault-sensing protective relays at each end of the line must communicate to monitor the flow of power into and out of the protected line section so that faulted conductors or equipment can be quickly de-energized and the balance of the system restored. Protection of the transmission line from short circuits and other faults is usually so critical that common carrier telecommunications are insufficiently reliable, and in remote areas a common carrier may not be available. Communication systems associated with a transmission project may use:


                     Power line communication

                     Optical fibers

Rarely, and for short distances, a utility will use pilot-wires strung along the transmission line path. Leased circuits from common carriers are not preferred since availability is not under control of the electric power transmission organization.

Transmission lines can also be used to carry data: this is called power-line carrier, or PLC. PLC signals can be easily received with a radio for the long wave range.

Optical fibers can be included in the stranded conductors of a transmission line, in the overhead shield wires. These cables are known as optical ground wire (OPGW). Sometimes a standalone cable is used, all-dielectric self-supporting (ADSS) cable, attached to the transmission line cross arms.

Some jurisdictions, such as Minnesota, prohibit energy transmission companies from selling surplus communication bandwidth or acting as a telecommunications common carrier. Where the regulatory structure permits, the utility can sell capacity in extra dark fibers to a common carrier, providing another revenue stream.

















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Last modified: July 13, 2016


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