Electrical energy is of little use unless it can be made available at the place where it is to be used. To minimize energy losses from heating of conductors and to economize on the material needed for conductors, electricity is usually transmitted at the highest voltages possible. As modern transformers are virtually loss free, the necessary steps upward or downward in voltage are easily accomplished. Transmission lines for alternating current using voltages as high as 765,000 volts are not uncommon. For voltages higher than this it is advantageous to transmit direct current rather than alternating current. Recent advances in rectifiers, which turn alternating current into direct current, and inverters, which convert direct into alternating, have made possible transmission lines that operate at 800,000 volts and above. Such lines are still very expensive, however.
Electric utilities are tied together by transmission lines into large systems called power grids. They are thus able to exchange power so that a utility with a low demand can assist another with a high demand to help prevent a blackout, which involves the partial or total shutdown of a utility. Under such a system a utility experiencing too great a load, as when peak demand coincides with equipment failure, must remove itself from the grid or endanger other utilities. During periods in which demand exceeds supply a utility can reduce the power drawn from it by lowering its voltage. These voltage reductions, which are normally of 3%, 5%, or 8%, result in power reductions, or brownouts, of about 6%, 10%, or 15%, causing inefficient operation of some electrical devices. The power distribution system, because of its generation of low-frequency electromagnetic fields, has been suggested as a possible source of health problems.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.