Reactive power is a concept used by engineers to describe the loss of power in a system arising from the production of electric and magnetic fields. Although reactive loads such as inductors and capacitors dissipate no power, they drop voltage and draw current, which creates the impression that they actually do. This "imaginary power" or "phantom power" is called reactive power. It is measured in a unit called Volt-Amps-Reactive (VAR). The actual amount of power being used, or dissipated, is called true power, and is measured in the unit of watts. The combination of reactive power and true power is called apparent power, and it is the product of a circuit's voltage and current. Apparent power is measured in the unit of Volt-Amps (VA). Devices which store energy by virtue of a magnetic field produced by a flow of current are said to absorb reactive power; those which store energy by virtue of electric fields are said to generate reactive power. Reactive power is significant because it must be provided and maintained to insure continuous, steady voltage on transmission networks. Reactive power thus is produced for maintenance of the system and not for end-use consumption. Power losses incurred in transmission from heat and electromagnetic emissions are included in the total reactive power requirement as are the needs of power hungry devices, such as electric motors, electromagnetic generators, and alternators. This power is supplied for many purposes by condensers, capacitors, and similar devices, which can react to changes in current flow by releasing energy to normalize the flow. If elements of the power grid cannot get the reactive power they need from nearby sources, they will pull it across transmission lines and destabilize the grid. In this way, poor management of reactive power can cause major blackouts.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.