Because the cost of each power line and transformer in a distribution system depends on the peak current it is designed to handle, a distribution system that is designed to handle the higher currents caused by loads with low power factor will cost more than a distribution system that delivers the same useful energy to loads with a power factor closer to 1.
In a purely resistive AC circuit, voltage and current waveforms are in step (or in phase), changing polarity at the same instant in each cycle. Where reactive loads are present, such as with capacitors or inductors, energy storage in the loads result in a time difference between the current and voltage waveforms. This stored energy returns to the source and is not available to do work at the load. Thus, a circuit with a low power factor will have higher currents to transfer a given quantity of real power than a circuit with a high power factor.
Circuits containing purely resistive heating elements (filament lamps, strip heaters, cooking stoves, etc.) have a power factor of 1.0. Circuits containing inductive or capacitive elements (lamp ballasts, motors, etc.) often have a power factor below 1.0. For example, in electric lighting circuits, normal power factor ballasts (NPF) typically have a value of (0.4 - 0.6). Ballasts with a power factor greater than (0.9) are considered high power factor ballasts (HPF).
The significance of power factor lies in the fact that utility companies supply customers with volt-amperes, but bill them for watts. Power factors below 1.0 require a utility to generate more than the minimum volt-amperes necessary to supply the real power (watts). This increases generation and transmission costs. For example, if the load power factor were as low as 0.7, the apparent power would be 1.4 times the real power used by the load. Line current in the circuit would also be 1.4 times the current required at 1.0 power factor, so the losses in the circuit would be doubled (since they are proportional to the square of the current). Alternatively all components of the system such as generators, conductors, transformers, and switchgear would be increased in size (and cost) to carry the extra current.
Utilities typically charge additional costs to customers who have a power factor below some limit, which is typically 0.9 to 0.95. Engineers are often interested in the power factor of a load as one of the factors that affect the efficiency of power transmission.
The power factor is defined as:
If is the phase angle between the current and voltage, then the power factor is equal to , and:
Since the units are consistent, the power factor is by definition a dimensionless number between 0 and 1. When power factor is equal to 0, the energy flow is entirely reactive, and stored energy in the load returns to the source on each cycle. When the power factor is 1, all the energy supplied by the source is consumed by the load. Power factors are usually stated as "leading" or "lagging" to show the sign of the phase angle, where leading indicates a negative sign.
If a purely resistive load is connected to a power supply, current and voltage will change polarity in step, the power factor will be unity (1), and the electrical energy flows in a single direction across the network in each cycle. Inductive loads such as transformers and motors (any type of wound coil) consume reactive power with current waveform lagging the voltage. Capacitive loads such as capacitor banks or buried cable generate reactive power with current phase leading the voltage. Both types of loads will absorb energy during part of the AC cycle, which is stored in the device's magnetic or electric field, only to return this energy back to the source during the rest of the cycle.
For example, to get 1 kW of real power, if the power factor is unity, 1 kVA of apparent power needs to be transferred (1 kW ÷ 1 = 1 kVA). At low values of power factor, more apparent power needs to be transferred to get the same real power. To get 1 kW of real power at 0.2 power factor, 5 kVA of apparent power needs to be transferred (1 kW ÷ 0.2 = 5 kVA). This apparent power must be produced and transmitted to the load in the conventional fashion, and is subject to the usual distributed losses in the production and transmission processes.
The reactive power increases the current flowing between the power source and the load, which increases the power losses through transmission and distribution lines. This results in additional costs for power companies. Reactive power can require the use of wiring, switches, circuit breakers, transformers and transmission lines with higher current capacities. Therefore, power companies require their customers, especially those with large loads, to maintain their power factors above a specified amount (usually 0.90 or higher) or be subject to additional charges. Electricity utilities measure reactive power used by high demand customers and charge higher rates accordingly. Some consumers install power factor correction schemes at their factories to cut down on these higher costs.
Power factor correction brings the power factor of an AC power circuit closer to 1 by supplying reactive power of opposite sign, adding capacitors or inductors which act to cancel the inductive or capacitive effects of the load, respectively. For example, the inductive effect of motor loads may be offset by locally connected capacitors. If a load had a capacitive value, inductors (also known as reactors in this context) are conencted to correct the power factor. In the electricity industry, inductors are said to consume reactive power and capacitors are said to supply it, even though the reactive power is actually just moving back and forth on each AC cycle.
The reactive elements can create voltage fluctuations and harmonic noise when switched on or off. They will supply or sink reactive power regardless of whether there is a corresponding load operating nearby, increasing the system's no-load losses. In a worst case, reactive elements can interact with the system and with each other to create resonant conditions, resulting in system instability and severe overvoltage fluctuations. As such, reactive elements cannot simply be applied at will, and power factor correction is normally subject to engineering analysis.
An automatic power factor correction unit is used to improve power factor. A power factor correction unit usually consists of a number of capacitors that are switched by means of contactors. These contactors are controlled by a regulator that measures power factor in an electrical network. To be able to measure 'power factor', the regulator uses a CT (Current transformer) to measure the current in one phase.
Depending on the load and power factor of the network, the power factor controller will switch the necessary blocks of capacitors in steps to make sure the power factor stays above 0.9 or other selected values (usually demanded by the energy supplier).
Instead of using a set of switched capacitors, an unloaded synchronous motor can supply reactive power. The reactive power drawn by the synchronous motor is a function of its field excitation. This is referred to as a synchronous condenser. It is started and connected to the electrical network. It operates at full leading power factor and puts VARs onto the network as required to support a system’s voltage or to maintain the system power factor at a specified level. The condenser’s installation and operation are identical to large electric motors. Its principal advantage is the ease with which the amount of correction can be adjusted; it behaves like an electrically variable capacitor. Unlike capacitors, the amount of reactive power supplied is proportional to voltage, not the square of voltage; this improves voltage stability on large networks. Synchronous condensors are often used in connnection with high voltage direct current transmission projects or in large industrial plants such as steel mills.
Non-linear loads create harmonic currents in addition to the original (fundamental frequency) AC current. Addition of linear components such as capacitors and inductors cannot cancel these harmonic currents, so other methods such as filters or active power factor correction are required to smooth out their current demand over each cycle of alternating current and so reduce the generated harmonic currents.
A typical multimeter will give incorrect results when attempting to measure the AC current drawn by a non-sinusoidal load and then calculate the power factor. A true RMS multimeter must be used to measure the actual RMS currents and voltages (and therefore apparent power). To measure the real power or reactive power, a wattmeter designed to properly work with non-sinusoidal currents must be used.
A typical switched-mode power supply first makes a DC bus, using a bridge rectifier or similar circuit. The output voltage is then derived from this DC bus. The problem with this is that the rectifier is a non-linear device, so the input current is highly non-linear. That means that the input current has energy at harmonics of the frequency of the voltage.
This presents a particular problem for the power companies, because they cannot compensate for the harmonic current by adding simple capacitors or inductors, as they could for the reactive power drawn by a linear load. Many jurisdictions are beginning to legally require power factor correction for all power supplies above a certain power level.
Regulatory agencies such as the EU have set harmonic limits as a method of improving power factor. Declining component cost has hastened implementation of two different methods. To comply with current EU standard EN61000-3-2, all switched-mode power supplies with output power more than 75 W must include passive PFC, at least. 80 PLUS power supply certification requires a power factor of 0.9 or more.
The simplest way to control the harmonic current is to use a filter: it is possible to design a filter that passes current only at line frequency (e.g. 50 or 60 Hz). This filter reduces the harmonic current, which means that the non-linear device now looks like a linear load. At this point the power factor can be brought to near unity, using capacitors or inductors as required. This filter requires large-value high-current inductors, however, which are bulky and expensive.
This is a simple way of correcting the nonlinearity of a load by using capacitor banks. It is not as effective as active PFC .
Some types of active PFC are
Active power factor correctors can be single-stage or multi-stage.
In the case of a switched-mode power supply, a boost converter is inserted between the bridge rectifier and the main input capacitors. The boost converter attempts to maintain a constant DC bus voltage on its output while drawing a current that is always in phase with and at the same frequency as the line voltage. Another switchmode converter inside the power supply produces the desired output voltage from the DC bus. This approach requires additional semiconductor switches and control electronics, but permits cheaper and smaller passive components. It is frequently used in practice. For example, SMPS with passive PFC can achieve power factor of about 0.7–0.75, SMPS with active PFC, up to 0.99 power factor, while a SMPS without any power factor correction has a power factor of only about 0.55–0.65 . Due to their very wide input voltage range, many power supplies with active PFC can automatically adjust to operate on AC power from about 100 V (Japan) to 240 V (UK). That feature is particularly welcome in power supplies for laptops.
A direct reading power factor meter can be made with a moving coil meter of the electrodynamic type, carrying two perpendicular coils on the moving part of the instrument. The field of the instrument is energized by the circuit current flow. The two moving coils, A and B, are connected in parallel with the circuit load. One coil, A, will be connected through a resistor and the second coil, B, through an inductor, so that the current in coil B is delayed with respect to current in A. At unity power factor, the current in A is in phase with the circuit current, and coil A provides maximum torque,driving the instrument pointer toward the 1.0 mark on the scale. At zero power factor, the current in coil B is in phase with circuit current, and coil B provides torque to drive the pointer towards 0. At intermediate values of power factor, the torques provided by the two coils add and the pointer takes up intermediate positions.
Another electromechanical instrument is the polarized-vane type. In this instrument a stationary field coil produces a rotating magnetic field (connected either directly to polyphase voltage sources or to a phase-shifting reactor if a single-phase application). A second stationary field coil carries a current proportional to current in the circuit. The moving system of the instrument consists of two vanes which are magnetized by the current coil. In operation the moving vanes take up a physical angle equivalent to the electrical angle between the voltage source and the current source. This type of instrument can be made to register for currents in both directions, giving a 4-quadrant display of power factor or phase angle.
Digital instruments can be made that either directly measure the time lag between voltage and current waveforms and so calculate the power factor, or by measuring both true and apparent power in the circuit and calculating the quotient. The first method is only accurate if voltage and current are sinusoidal; loads such as rectifiers distort the waveforms from the sinusoidal shape.