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Power station Transformer Electric power transmission Transformer
Simplified diagram of AC electricity distribution from generation stations to consumers

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.



Modern distribution systems

Electric distribution substations transform power from transmission voltage to the lower voltage used for local distribution to homes and businesses

The modern distribution system begins as the primary circuit leaves the sub-station and ends as the secondary service enters the customer's meter socket. A variety of methods, materials, and equipment are used among the various utility companies, but the end result is similar. First, the energy leaves the sub-station in a primary circuit, usually with all three phases.

The actual attachment to a building varies in different parts of the world.

Most areas provide three phase industrial service. There is no substitute for three-phase service to run heavy industrial equipment. A ground is normally provided, connected to conductive cases and other safety equipment, to keep current away from equipment and people. Distribution voltages vary depending on customer need, equipment and availability. Delivered voltage is usually constructed using stock transformers, and either the voltage difference between phase and neutral or the voltage difference from phase to phase.

In many areas, "delta" three phase service is common. Delta service has no distributed neutral wire and is therefore less expensive. The three coils in the generator rotor are in series, in a loop, with the connections made at the three joints between the coils. Ground is provided as a low resistance earth ground, sometimes attached to a synthetic ground made by a transformer in a substation. High frequency noise (like that made by arc furnaces) can sometimes cause transients on a synthetic ground.

In North America and Latin America, three phase service is often a Y (wye) in which the neutral is directly connected to the center of the generator rotor. Wye service resists transients better than delta, since the distributed neutral provides a low-resistance metallic return to the generator. Wye service is recognizable when a grid has four wires, one of which is lightly insulated.

Many areas in the world use single phase 220 V or 230 V residential and light industrial service. In this system, a high voltage distribution network supplies a few substations per city, and the 230V power from each substation is directly distributed. A hot wire and neutral are connected to the building from one phase of three phase service.

In the U.S. and parts of Canada and Latin America, split phase service is the most common. Split phase provides both 120 V and 240 V service with only three wires. Split phase has substations that provide intermediate voltage. The house voltages are provided by neighborhood transformers that lower the voltage of a phase of the distributed three-phase. The neutral is directly connected to the three-phase neutral. Socket voltages are only 120 V, but 240 V is available for heavy appliances because the two phases oppose each other.

Japan has a large number of small industrial manufacturers, and therefore supplies standard low voltage three phase service in many suburbs. Also, Japan normally supplies residential service as two phases of a three phase service, with a neutral.

Rural services normally try to minimize the number of poles and wires. Single-wire earth return (SWER) is the least expensive, with one wire. It uses high voltages, which in turn permit use of galvanized steel wire. The strong steel wire permits inexpensive wide pole spacings. Other areas use high voltage split-phase or three phase service at higher cost.

The least expensive network has the fewest transformers, poles and wires. Some experts say[1] that this is three-phase delta for industrial, SWER for rural service, and 230 V single phase for residential and light industrial. The system of three-phase Wye feeding split phase is flexible and somewhat more resistant to geomagnetic faults, but more expensive.

Two frequencies are in wide use. 60 Hz permits slightly smaller transformers and is usually associated with 120 V wall sockets. 50 Hz is more common outside North America and is associated with 230 V wall sockets. Large electrical networks tightly control the line frequencies. The short term accuracy is normally better than 0.1 Hz. The long term accuracy is controlled by making up "lost" cycles so that electric clocks maintain correct time.

Electricity meters use different equations for each distribution system.


In the early days of electricity distribution, direct current (DC) generators were connected to loads at the same voltage. The generation, transmission and loads had to be of the same voltage because there was no way of changing DC voltage levels, other than inefficient motor-generator sets. Low DC voltages were used (on the order of 100 volts) since that was a practical voltage for incandescent lamps, which were the primary electrical load. Low voltage also required less insulation for safe distribution within buildings.

The losses in a cable are proportional to the square of the current, the length of the cable, and the resistivity of the material, and are inversely proportional to cross-sectional area. Early transmission networks used copper, which is one of the best economically feasible conductors for this application. To reduce the current and copper required for a given quantity of power transmitted would require a higher transmission voltage, but no efficient method existed to change the voltage of DC power circuits. To keep losses to an economically practical level the Edison DC system needed thick cables and local generators. Early DC generating plants needed to be within about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) of the farthest customer to avoid excessively large and expensive conductors.

Introduction of alternating current

General layout of electricity networks

The adoption of alternating current (AC) for electricity generation following the War of Currents dramatically changed the situation. Power transformers, installed at power stations, could be used to raise the voltage from the generators, and transformers at local substations reduced it to supply loads. Increasing the voltage reduced the current in the transmission and distribution lines and hence the size of conductors and distribution losses. This made it more economical to distribute power over long distances. Generators (such as hydroelectric sites) could be located far from the loads.

In North America, early distribution systems used a voltage of 2.2 kV corner-grounded delta. Over time, this was gradually increased to 2.4 kV. As cities grew, most 2.4 kV systems were upgraded to 2.4/4.16 kV, three-phase systems. In three phase networks that permit connections between phase and neutral, both the phase-to-phase voltage (4160, in this example) and the phase-to-neutral voltage are given; if only one value is shown, the network does not serve single-phase loads connected phase-to-neutral. Some city and suburban distribution systems continue to use this range of voltages, but most have been converted to 7200/12470Y, 7620/13200Y, 14400/24940Y, and 19920/34500Y.

European systems used 3.3 kV to ground, in support of the 220/380Y volt power systems used in those countries. In the UK, urban systems progressed to 6.6 kV and then 11 kV (phase to phase), the most common distribution voltage.

North American and European power distribution systems also differ in that North American systems tend to have a greater number of low-voltage, step-down transformers located close to customers' premises. For example, in the US a pole-mounted transformer in a suburban setting may supply 1-3 houses, whereas in the UK a typical urban or suburban low-voltage substation would normally be rated between 315 kVA and 1 MVA and supply a whole neighbourhood. This is because the higher voltage used in Europe (415 V vs 230 V) may be carried over a greater distance with acceptable power loss. An advantage of the North American setup is that failure or maintenance on a single transformer will only affect a few customers. Advantages of the UK setup are that the transformers may be fewer, larger and more efficient, and due to diversity there need be less spare capacity in the transformers, reducing power wastage. In North American city areas with many customers per unit area, network distribution will be used, with multiple transformers and low-voltage buses interconnected over several city blocks.

Rural Electrification systems, in contrast to urban systems, tend to use higher voltages because of the longer distances covered by those distribution lines (see Rural Electrification Administration). 7.2, 12.47, 25, and 34.5 kV distribution is common in the United States; 11 kV and 33 kV are common in the UK, New Zealand and Australia; 11 kV and 22 kV are common in South Africa. Other voltages are occasionally used.

In New Zealand, Australia, Saskatchewan, Canada, and South Africa, single wire earth return systems (SWER) are used to electrify remote rural areas.

While power electronics now allow for conversion between DC voltage levels, AC is still used in distribution due to the economy, efficiency and reliability of transformers. High-voltage DC is used for transmission of large blocks of power over long distances, or for interconnecting adjacent AC networks, but not for distribution to customers.

Distribution network configurations

Distribution networks are typically of two types, radial or interconnected (see Spot Network Substations). A radial network leaves the station and passes through the network area with no normal connection to any other supply. This is typical of long rural lines with isolated load areas. An interconnected network is generally found in more urban areas and will have multiple connections to other points of supply. These points of connection are normally open but allow various configurations by the operating utility by closing and opening switches. Operation of these switches may be by remote control from a control centre or by a lineman. The benefit of the interconnected model is that in the event of a fault or required maintenance a small area of network can be isolated and the remainder kept on supply.

Within these networks there may be a mix of overhead line construction utilizing traditional utility poles and wires and, increasingly, underground construction with cables and indoor or cabinet substations. However, underground distribution is significantly more expensive than overhead construction. In part to reduce this cost, underground power lines are sometimes co-located with other utility lines in what are called Common utility ducts. Distribution feeders emanating from a substation are generally controlled by a circuit breaker which will open when a fault is detected. Automatic Circuit Reclosers may be installed to further segregate the feeder thus minimizing the impact of faults.

Long feeders experience voltage drop requiring capacitors or voltage regulators to be installed.

Characteristics of the supply given to customers are generally mandated by contract between the supplier and customer. Variables of the supply include:

  • AC or DC - Virtually all public electricity supplies are AC today. Users of large amounts of DC power such as some electric railways, telephone exchanges and industrial processes such as aluminium smelting usually either operate their own or have adjacent dedicated generating equipment, or use rectifiers to derive DC from the public AC supply
  • Voltage, including tolerance (usually +10 or -15 percentage)
  • Frequency, commonly 50 & 60 Hz, 16.6 Hz for some railways and, in a few older industrial and mining locations, 25 Hz.[2]
  • Phase configuration (single phase, polyphase including two phase and three phase)
  • Maximum demand (usually measured as the largest amount of power delivered within a 15 or 30 minute period during a billing period)
  • Load Factor, expressed as a ratio of average load to peak load over a period of time. Load factor indicates the degree of effective utilization of equipment (and capital investment) of distribution line or system.
  • Power factor of connected load
  • Earthing arrangements - TT, TN-S, TN-C-S or TN-C
  • Prospective short circuit current
  • Maximum level and frequency of occurrence of transients

Distribution industry

Traditionally the electricity industry has been a publicly owned institution but starting in the 1970s nations began the process of deregulation and privatisation, leading to electricity markets. A major focus of these was the elimination of the former so called natural monopoly of generation, transmission, and distribution. As a consequence, electricity has become more of a commodity. The separation has also led to the development of new terminology to describe the business units (e.g., line company, wires business and network company).

See also


  1. ^ A.B Power, see their web site.
  2. ^ 400 Hz used for select aircraft, computer, and military equipment is never used for extended distribution systems (more than a few hundred meters).

External links

Further reading

  • Brown, R. E., Electric Power Distribution Reliability, Marcel Dekker, Inc., 2002.
  • Burke, J., Power Distribution Engineering, Marcel Dekker, Inc., 1994.
  • Hoffman, P., Scheer, R., Marchionini, B., Distributed Energy Resources: A Key Element of Grid Modernization DE - March/April 2004 [1]
  • SE Group Planning & Design for Vermont Dept of Public Service, Utility Line Location Issues Paper, Summary Report, January 2003 [2]
  • Short, T. A. Electric Power Distribution Handbook, CRC Press, 2004.
  • Westinghouse Electric Corporation, Distribution Systems, vol. 3, 1965.
  • Westinghouse Electric Corporation, Electric power transmission patents; Tesla polyphase system. (Transmission of power; polyphase system; Tesla patents)
  • Willis, H. L., Power Distribution Planning Reference Book, Marcel Dekker, Inc., 2nd ed., 2004.


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