Electrical Transmission


    Electric-power transmission is the bulk transfer of electrical energy, from generating power plants to electrical substations located near demand centers. This is distinct from the local wiring between high-voltage substations and customers, which is typically referred to as electric power distribution. Transmission lines, when interconnected with each other, become transmission networks. The combined transmission and distribution network is known as the grid in the United States.

    A wide area synchronous grid, also known as an “interconnection” directly connects a large number of generators outputting AC power with the same phase, to a large number of consumers. For example, there are three major interconnections in North America (the Western Interconnection, the Eastern Interconnection and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) grid), and one large grid for most of continental Europe.

    Historically, transmission and distribution lines were owned by the same company, but starting in the 1990s, many countries have liberalized the regulation of the electricity market in ways that have led to the separation of the electricity transmission business from the distribution business.


    Most transmission lines use high-voltage three-phase alternating current (AC), although single phase AC is sometimes used in railway electrification systems. High-voltage direct-current (HVDC) technology is used for greater efficiency in very long distances (typically hundreds of miles (kilometres)), or in submarine power cables (typically longer than 30 miles (50 km)). HVDC links are also used to stabilize against control problems in large power distribution networks where sudden new loads or blackouts in one part of a network can otherwise result in synchronization problems and cascading failures.

    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 electric power is that, with minor exceptions, electrical energy cannot be stored, and therefore must be generated as needed. A sophisticated control system is required to ensure electric generation very closely matches the demand. If the demand for power exceeds the supply, generation plants and transmission equipment can shut down which, in the worst cases, can lead to a major regional blackout, such as occurred in the US Northeast blackouts of 1965, 1977, 2003, and other regional blackouts in 1996 and 2011.

    To reduce the risk of such failures, electric transmission networks are interconnected into regional, national or continental wide networks thereby providing multiple redundant alternative 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 (ordinarily 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.

    High-voltage overhead conductors are not covered by insulation. The conductor material is nearly always an aluminum alloy, made into several strands and possibly reinforced with steel strands. Copper was sometimes used for overhead transmission but aluminum is lighter, yields only marginally reduced performance, and costs much less. Improved conductor material and shapes are regularly used to allow increased capacity and modernize transmission circuits. Conductor sizes range from 12 mm2 (#6 American wire gauge) to 750 mm2(1,590,000 circular mils area), with varying resistance and current-carrying capacity. Thicker wires would lead to a relatively small increase in capacity due to the skin effect, that causes most of the current to flow close to the surface of the wire. Because of this current limitation, multiple parallel cables (called bundle conductors) are used when higher capacity is needed. Bundle conductors are also used at high voltages to reduce energy loss caused by corona discharge.

    Today, transmission-level voltages are usually considered to be 110 kV and above. Lower voltages such as 66 kV and 35 kV are usually considered subtransmission voltages but are occasionally used on long lines with light loads. Voltages less than 35 kV are usually used for distribution. Voltages above 230 kV are considered extra high voltage and require different designs compared to equipment used at lower voltages.

    Since overhead transmission wires depend on air for insulation, design of these lines requires minimum clearances to be observed to maintain safety. Adverse weather conditions of high wind and low temperatures can lead to power outages. Wind speeds as low as 23 knots (43 km/h) can permit conductors to encroach operating clearances, resulting in a flashover and loss of supply. Oscillatory motion of the physical line can be termed gallop or flutter depending on the frequency and amplitude of oscillation.

    Electric power can also be transmitted by underground power cables instead of overhead power lines. Underground cables take up less right-of-way than overhead lines, have lower visibility, and are less affected by bad weather. However, costs of insulated cable and excavation are much higher than overhead construction. Faults in buried transmission lines take longer to locate and repair. Underground lines are strictly limited by their thermal capacity, which permits less overload or re-rating than overhead lines. Long underground cables have significant capacitance, which may reduce their ability to provide useful power to loads.

    In the early days of commercial electric power, transmission of electric power at the same voltage as used by lighting and mechanical loads restricted the distance between generating plant and consumers. In 1882, generation was with direct current (DC), which could not easily be increased in voltage for long-distance transmission. Different classes of loads (for example, lighting, fixed motors, and traction/railway systems) required different voltages, and so used different generators and circuits. Due to this specialization of lines and because transmission was inefficient for low-voltage high-current circuits, generators needed to be near their loads. It seemed at the time, that the industry would develop into what is now known as a distributed generation system with large numbers of small generators located near their loads.

    In 1886, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a 1 kV alternating current (AC) distribution system was installed. That same year, AC power at 2 kV, transmitted 30 km, was installed at Cerchi, Italy. At an AIEE meeting on May 16, 1888, Nikola Tesla delivered a lecture entitled A New System of Alternating Current Motors and Transformers, describing the equipment which allowed efficient generation and use of polyphase alternating currents.

    Westinghouse became the dominant player in the AC, polyphase market because he was able to acquire the patents for the transformer and Tesla’s polyphase and single-phase induction motors. Westinghouse was a truly creative and resourseful Engineer and he was able to combine the transformer and the induction motor and generator into an AC distribution system for both lighting and machinery. Ownership of the rights to the Tesla patents was a key advantage to the Westinghouse Company in offering a complete alternating current power system for both lighting and power. Regarded as one of the most influential electrical innovations, the universal system used transformers to step-up voltage from generators to high-voltage transmission lines, and then to step-down voltage to local distribution circuits or industrial customers.

    By a suitable choice of utility frequency, both lighting and motor loads could be served. Rotary converters and later mercury-arc valves and other rectifier equipment allowed DC to be provided where needed. Generating stations and loads using different frequencies could be interconnected using rotary converters. By using common generating plants for every type of load, important economies of scale were achieved, lower overall capital investment was required, load factor on each plant was increased allowing for higher efficiency, a lower cost for the consumer and increased overall use of electric power.

    By allowing multiple generating plants to be interconnected over a wide area, electricity production cost was reduced. The most efficient available plants could be used to supply the varying loads during the day. Reliability was improved and capital investment cost was reduced, since stand-by generating capacity could be shared over many more customers and a wider geographic area. Remote and low-cost sources of energy, such as hydroelectric power or mine-mouth coal, could be exploited to lower energy production cost. The first transmission of three-phase alternating current using high voltage took place in 1891 during the international electricity exhibition in Frankfurt. A 25 kV transmission line, approximately 175 km long, connected Lauffen on the Neckar and Frankfurt.

    Voltages used for electric power transmission increased throughout the 20th century. By 1914, fifty-five transmission systems each operating at more than 70 kV were in service. The highest voltage then used was 150 kV. The rapid industrialization in the 20th century made electrical transmission lines and grids a critical infrastructure item in most industrialized nations. Interconnection of local generation plants and small distribution networks was greatly spurred by the requirements of World War I, with large electrical generating plants built by governments to provide power to munitions factories. Engineers design transmission networks to transport the energy as efficiently as feasible, while at the same time taking into account economic factors, network safety and redundancy. These networks use components such as power lines, cables, circuit breakers, switches and transformers. The transmission network is usually administered on a regional basis by an entity such as a regional transmission organization or transmission system operator.


    The power of an electrical system is a product of the voltage and the current (P=VxI). Transmission efficiency is greatly improved by devices that increase the voltage, (and thereby proportionately reduce the current) in the line conductors, thus allowing power to be transmitted with acceptable losses. The reduced current flowing through the line reduces the heating losses in the conductors.

    According to Joule’s Law, energy losses are directly proportional to the square of the current. Thus, reducing the current by a factor of 2 will lower the energy lost to conductor resistance by a factor of 4. This increase of voltage is usually achieved in AC circuits by using a step-up transformer. HVDC systems require relatively costly conversion equipment which may be economically justified for particular projects such as submarine cables and longer distance high capacity point to point transmission but are infrequently used at present.

    At the power stations the power is produced at a relatively low voltage between about 2.3 kV and 30 kV, depending on the size of the unit. The generator terminal voltage is then stepped up by the power station transformer to a higher voltage (115 kV to 765 kV AC, varying by the transmission system and by country) for transmission over long distances.

    An Electrical Grid is a network of power stations, transmission lines, and substations. Energy is usually transmitted within a grid with three-phase AC. Single-phase AC is used only for distribution to end users since it is not usable for large polyphase induction motors. In the 19th century, two-phase transmission was used but required either four wires or three wires with unequal currents. Higher order phase systems require more than three wires, but deliver marginal benefits.

    The price of electric power station capacity is high, and electric demand is variable, so it is often cheaper to import some portion of the needed power than to generate it locally. Because loads are often regionally correlated (hot weather in the Southwest portion of the US might cause many people to use air conditioners), electric power often comes from distant sources. Because of the economic benefits of load sharing between regions, wide area transmission systems now span countries and even continents. The web of interconnections between power producers and consumers should enable power to flow, even if some links have failed and are inoperative.

    • BASE LOAD: The unvarying (or slowly varying over many hours) portion of the electric demand is known as the base load and is generally served by large facilities (which are more efficient due to economies of scale) with fixed costs for fuel and operation. Such facilities are nuclear, coal-fired or hydroelectric. Most of the newer base load facilities are using natural gas fired combined cycle turbine generation technologies to provide secure base load facilities to the transmission systems. These combined cycle generation facilities have high thermal efficiencies and can provide heat rates at 600 to 700.

    • PEAK POWER: While other energy sources such as concentrated solar thermal and geothermal power have the potential to provide base load power the reality requires a considerable amount of improvement in our ability to store energy at a reasonable cost. Renewable energy sources such as solar photovoltaics, wind, wave, and tidal are, due to their intermittency, not considered as supplying “base load” but will still add power to the transmission system. The remaining or ‘peak’ power demand, is supplied by peaking power plants, which are typically smaller, faster-responding, and higher cost sources, such as combined cycle or combustion turbine plants fueled by natural gas.

    Long-distance transmission of electricity (thousands of kilometers) is cheap and efficient, with costs of US$0.005–0.02/kWh (compared to annual averaged large producer costs of US$0.01–0.025/kWh, retail rates upwards of US$0.10/kWh, and multiples of retail for instantaneous suppliers at unpredicted highest demand moments). Thus distant suppliers can be cheaper than local sources. Multiple local sources (even if more expensive and infrequently used) can make the transmission grid more fault tolerant to weather and other disasters that can disconnect distant suppliers.

    Long-distance transmission allows remote renewable energy resources to be used to displace fossil fuel consumption. Hydro and wind sources cannot be moved closer to populous cities, and solar costs are lowest in remote areas where local power needs are minimal. Connection costs alone can determine whether any particular renewable alternative is economically sensible. Costs can be prohibitive for transmission lines, but various proposals for massive infrastructure investment in high capacity, very long distance super grid transmission networks could be recovered with modest usage fees.

    Transmitting electricity at high voltage reduces the fraction of energy lost to resistance, which varies depending on the specific conductors, the current flowing (measured in kilo-Amperes (kA.)) and the length of the transmission line. For example, a 100 mile 765 kV line carrying 1000 MW of energy can have losses of 1.1% to 0.5%. A 345 kV line carrying the same load across the same distance has losses of 4.2%.

    For a given amount of power, a higher voltage reduces the current and thus the resistive losses in the conductor. For example, raising the voltage by a factor of 10 reduces the current by a corresponding factor of 10 and therefore the I2R losses by a factor of 100, provided the same sized conductors are used in both cases. Even if the conductor size (cross-sectional area) is reduced 10-fold to match the lower current the I2R losses are still reduced 10-fold.

    Long-distance transmission is typically done with overhead lines at voltages of 115 to 1,200 kV. At extremely high voltages, more than 2,000 kV exists between conductor and ground, corona discharge losses are so large that they can offset the lower resistive losses in the line conductors. Measures to reduce corona losses include conductors having larger diameters; often hollow to save weight, or bundles of two or more conductors.

    Transmission and distribution losses in the USA were estimated at 6.6% in 1997 and 6.5% in 2007. In general, losses are estimated from the discrepancy between power produced (as reported by power plants) and power sold to end customers; the difference between what is produced and what is consumed constitute transmission and distribution losses, assuming no theft of utility occurs.

    In any alternating current transmission line, the inductance and capacitance of the conductors can be significant. Currents that flow solely in ‘reaction’ to these properties of the circuit, (which together with the resistance define the impedance) constitute reactive power flow, which transmits no ‘real’ power to the load.

    These reactive currents however are very real and cause extra heating losses in the transmission circuit. The ratio of ‘real’ power (transmitted to the load) to ‘apparent’ power (sum of ‘real’ and ‘reactive’) is the power factor. As reactive current increases, the reactive power increases and the power factor decreases. For transmission systems with low power factor, losses are higher than for systems with high power factor.

    Utilities add capacitor banks, reactors and other components (such as phase-shifting transformers; static VAR compensators; physical transposition of the phase conductors; and FLEXIBLE AC TRANSMISSION SYSTEMS, FACTS) throughout the system to compensate for the reactive power flow and reduce the losses in power transmission and stabilize system voltages. These measures are collectively called ‘reactive support’.

    Subtransmission is part of an electric power transmission system that runs at relatively lower voltages. It is uneconomical to connect all distribution substations to the high main transmission voltage, because the equipment is larger and more expensive. Typically, only larger substations connect with this high voltage. It is stepped down and sent to smaller substations in towns and neighborhoods. Sub-transmission circuits are usually arranged in loops so that a single line failure does not cut off service to a large number of customers for more than a short time. While sub-transmission circuits are usually carried on overhead lines, in urban areas buried cable may be used.

    There is no fixed cutoff between sub-transmission and transmission, or sub-transmission and distribution. The voltage ranges overlap somewhat. Voltages of 69 kV, 115 kV and 138 kV are often used for sub-transmission in North America. As power systems evolved, voltages formerly used for transmission were used for sub-transmission, and sub-transmission voltages became distribution voltages. Like transmission, sub-transmission moves relatively large amounts of power, and like distribution, sub-transmission covers an area instead of just point to point.

    The amount of power that can be sent over a transmission line is limited. The origins of the limits vary depending on the length of the line. For a short line, the heating of conductors due to line losses sets a thermal limit. If too much current is drawn, conductors may sag too close to the ground, or conductors and equipment may be damaged by overheating. For intermediate-length lines on the order of 100 km (62 mi), the limit is set by the voltage drop in the line. For longer AC lines, system stability sets the limit to the power that can be transferred. Approximately, the power flowing over an AC line is proportional to the cosine of the phase angle of the voltage and current at the receiving and transmitting ends. Since this angle varies depending on system loading and generation, it is undesirable for the angle to approach 90 degrees. Very approximately, the allowable product of line length and maximum load is proportional to the square of the system voltage. Series capacitors or phase-shifting transformers are used on long lines to improve stability.

    Up to now, it has been almost impossible to foresee the temperature distribution along the cable route, so that the maximum applicable current load was usually set as a compromise between understanding of operation conditions and risk minimization. The availability of industrial Distributed Temperature Sensing (DTS) systems that measure in real time temperatures all along the cable is a first step in monitoring the transmission system capacity. This monitoring solution is based on using passive optical fibers as temperature sensors, either integrated directly inside a high voltage cable or mounted externally on the cable insulation. A solution for overhead lines is also available. In this case the optical fiber is integrated into the core of a phase wire of overhead transmission lines (OPPC). The integrated Dynamic Cable Rating (DCR) or also called Real Time Thermal Rating (RTTR) solution enables not only to continuously monitor the temperature of a high voltage cable circuit in real time, but to safely utilize the existing network capacity to its maximum. Furthermore it provides the ability to the operator to predict the behavior of the transmission system upon major changes made to its initial operating conditions.

    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.

    The transmission system provides for base load and peak load capability, with safety and fault tolerance margins. The peak load times vary by region largely due to the industry mix. In very hot and very cold climates home air conditioning and heating loads have an effect on the overall load. They are typically highest in the late afternoon in the hottest part of the year and in mid-mornings and mid-evenings in the coldest part of the year. This makes the power requirements vary by the season and the time of day. Distribution system designs always take the base load and the peak load into consideration.

    The transmission system usually does not have a large buffering capability to match the loads with the generation. Thus generation has to be kept matched to the load, to prevent overloading failures of the generation equipment.

    Multiple sources and loads can be connected to the transmission system and they must be controlled to provide orderly transfer of power. In centralized power generation, only local control of generation is necessary, and it involves synchronization of the generation units, to prevent large transients and overload conditions.

    In distributed power generation the generators are geographically distributed and the process to bring them online and offline must be carefully controlled. The load control signals can either be sent on separate lines or on the power lines themselves. Voltage and frequency can be used as signalling mechanisms to balance the loads.

    In voltage signaling, the variation of voltage is used to increase generation. The power added by any system increases as the line voltage decreases. This arrangement is stable in principle. Voltage-based regulation is complex to use in mesh networks, since the individual components and setpoints would need to be reconfigured every time a new generator is added to the mesh.

    In frequency signaling, the generating units match the frequency of the power transmission system. In droop speed control, if the frequency decreases, the power is increased. (The drop in line frequency is an indication that the increased load is causing the generators to slow down.)

    Under excess load conditions, the system can be designed to fail gracefully rather than all at once. Brownouts occur when the supply power drops below the demand. Blackouts occur when the supply fails completely.

    Rolling blackouts (also called load shedding) are intentionally engineered electrical power outages, used to distribute insufficient power when the demand for electricity exceeds the supply.

    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:

    • Microwaves
    • 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.