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AC Versus DC Distribution SystemsDid We Get it Right?

Donald J. Hammerstrom, Senior Member, IEEE1

Abstract--We presently enjoy a predominantly ac electrical distribution system, the engineering basis for which was designed over 100 years ago. While ac distribution systems have served us well, we should periodically pause to assess what opportunities we have accepted or been denied by the overwhelming predominance of ac electrical power distribution systems. What opportunities could be obtained by engineering dc distribution into at least portions of our present system? What advantages of the present ac distribution system should be recognized and protected? This paper will focus on distribution within premise and low-voltage distribution systems. Specifically, we will address the conversion efficiency costs of adopting various premise ac and dc distribution system topologies. According to a simple predictive model formulated in this paper, premise residential dc distribution will incur unfavorable total conversion efficiency compared with existing ac premise distribution. However, if a residence is supplied by a fuel cell or another dc generator, the total conversion efficiency within a residential dc distribution system could be similar to, or even better than, that for ac distribution. Index Terms-- Dc power systems, energy conversion, energy management, energy storage, power distribution, power distribution economics, power supplies, power system economics.

exposure to 50/60-Hz electromagnetic fields [2], for example. We concede that HVDC transmission projects have been given due economic consideration and will not be reconsidered here. We will instead focus on low-voltage and premise distribution systems. With so much investment having been made in low-voltage ac distribution systems, the challenge would be great to enact change, but we argue that such changes, if made, would be very influential to the operation of the future power grid and could provide flexibility needed for the successful operation of micro-grids [3]. The middle sections of this paper will list the issues that are today influencing the balance between ac and dc in our present systems and will list the strongest attributes of ac and dc premise distribution. A simple model will then be suggested for the comparison of ac and dc premise systems. The approach used in this paper will extend the consideration of dc distribution within commercial facilities, as discussed in [4], to residential facilities. We will emphasize the conversion efficiency costs of comparable ac and dc premise distribution systems with and without sources of local dc generation. II. INFLUENCIAL ISSUES A. Energy Storage, Distributed Generation and Control, and Micro-grids Electric power system resources and their controls have become increasingly distributed, and there will be increasing pressure to accommodate renewable and other distributed generation resources, many of which cannot be incorporated without power electronic interfaces [5]. Of particular interest will be the future use of stationary fuel cells [6] and microgrids [3]. Many renewable power sources, including photovoltaic generation, are inherently dc supplies. Wind energy too can be better optimized if at least part of the wind generators capacity is coupled through power electronic conversion that often includes a dc bus [5]. The conversion from dc power to ac and later back to dc incurs multiple losses during conversions that might be avoided. Our present ac distribution system has virtually no energy storage, but dc energy is quite naturally stored in batteries. B. Battery Chargers and Electric Vehicles Battery chargers are extensively used for cordless tools,


HIS article reopens a discussion, the initiation of which may be attributed to competition between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, concerning the relative merits of dc and ac distribution systems. While the late 19th Century is noted for some of the worlds most inventive engineering, this competition was apparently influenced also by the attribution of dc or ac for use in a controversial new inventionthe electric chair [1]. Since then, ac distribution won favor and has become inextricably woven into our electric power systems. Nonetheless, we should benefit periodically from a reevaluation of our engineering approaches. Indeed, such a reconsideration of this paradigm led to the design and construction of economical HVDC transmission over long distances, didnt it? And, as was the case in the 19th Century, the relative merits of ac and dc distribution are perhaps again vulnerable to controversyhealth concerns from human

This work is supported by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, operated for the U.S. Department of Energy by Battelle under Contract DEAC06-76RL01830. D. J. Hammerstrom is with the Energy Science and Technology Division, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, P. O. Box 999, MSIN: K1-85, Richland, WA 99352 USA (e-mail:

1-4244-1298-6/07/$25.00 2007 IEEE.

laptop computers, and other portable electronics. The fate of electric vehicle technology will also affect this debate [7]. Not only could fleets of electric vehicles become significant consumers of electrical power, but their batteries could also provide improved grid reliability and energy storage whenever they are grid-connected by pushing power back onto the power grid. C. Computers, Lighting, and Home Electronics Electronics, including energy-hungry computer servers, have become significant system loads. The nature of lighting, too, is changing as consumers select efficient alternatives to replace their incandescent lights. These devices require a source of dc power. Focusing primarily on server applications, reference [8] reviews the complexity of the power supplies for such electronic devices. Presently, each electronic load has its own dedicated power supply. Savings might be obtained by avoiding such redundancies. Regardless, power electronic converters and power supplies play an important role for the future of electronic equipment [9]. D. Naval and Oceanographic Research Finally, shipboard and undersea dc power system research has improved our understanding of, control of, and equipment for dc distribution systems. We cite, for examples, efforts to redesign all-electric ships and the recent Neptune project, which aims to build a series of undersea research sites off the Pacific coasts of Canada and United States [10]. III. ADVANTAGES OF AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR DC DISTRIBUTION A. Incorporation of Renewable Energy Resources Dc renewable energy resources could be much more readily incorporated into a premise dc bus. Doing so would eliminate conversions, each of which saves between 2.5 % and 10 % of the developed energy. B. Reliability and Uninterruptible Supplies Our growing desire for reliable information technologies requires uninterruptible power supplies. Each such supply must provide dc bus battery storage, which can continue to supply an application with power during unplanned ac outages. C. Voltage Stability We are reminded in [11] that dc distribution system components will not alleviate, and might exacerbate, our voltage stability calculations and challenges, especially if dc and ac distribution will coexist, as they must. Nonetheless, active input stages of power supplies might not only assure good power factor, they might also inject reactive power into their ac supplies to help control voltage and provide voltage stability. D. Fluorescent Lighting and Electronics Fluorescent lighting electronic ballasts are well served by

dc power. Our movement away from less-efficient incandescent lighting toward lighting technologies like compact fluorescent fixtures (and eventually solid-state lighting) could accompany dc distribution. Doing so would save and consolidate at least one conversion step that is presently performed at each lighting fixture. A similar argument can be made for home electronics devices, all of which require dc power and must rectify ac power supplied to them. E. Variable-speed Drives Variable-speed drives, both in generation and loads, help match the input and output power. The result can be improved efficiency, improved personal comfort, or both. Variable speed control is more easily obtained from a dc source. F. Power Quality While power electronics are frequently viewed as a cause of poor power quality, power electronic converters can meet most power quality standards placed on an ac system and could even improve ac power quality. The first stages of dc power supplies should always perform power factor correction. Good design practices and filtering also assure acceptable harmonic power quality. The opportunity arises from using power electronic conversion for not only preventing poor power quality, but also for improving power quality. G. 60-Hz health Concerns Potential health concerns from human exposure to 60-Hz distribution could drive us toward increased use of dc distribution systems [2]. IV. ADVANTAGES OF AC DISTRIBUTION A. Voltage Transformation Perhaps the greatest benefit available to ac systems is the ease with which ac voltage can be elevated for distribution over distance and again lowered, if necessary, near the load. Dc voltage conversion is improving, but dc voltage conversion might never be so simple, and has not yet reached the place where dc converters can routinely compete with transformers for high-voltage distribution. The exception is HVDC transmission, which rectifies and inverts to and from highvoltage dc at only a limited number of remote substations. B. Circuit Breaker Protection Circuit protection is more mature for ac distribution systems than for dc systems, so it might be impossible to make a fair comparison. Ac circuit protection schemes benefit from periodic zero voltage crossings, at which times circuit breakers have an improved likelihood to extinguish a fault current arc. But [12] concludes that this limitation is not so severe for the protection of low dc potential circuits. C. Voltage Stability Voltage stability is an issue for both ac and dc distribution

systems and becomes even more challenging where ac and dc are mixed [11]. The advantage of an ac system is that the stable voltage can be controlled independently from real power through the management of reactive power. In a dc system, voltage drops are direct consequences of real power flow over a conductors length. This being said, there is an interesting interplay between ac systems and power electronic conversion equipment. Active power supplies can manage power factor at their terminals [13] and could inject reactive power into an ac system to help control ac system voltage. V. APPROACH FOR COMPARISON OF SYSTEM CONVERSION EFFICIENCIES FOR RESIDENCES In this section, we provide a simple model and context by which we will be able to assess the tradeoffs between dc and ac premise distribution with respect to numbers of required conversion steps, each of which incurs an efficiency penalty. We begin by reviewing the approach and conclusions of Sannino et al. [4]. The authors modeled the distribution of electric power within their own research office facility supplied by 400-V three-phase ac, as now exists, and by four different dc voltages ranging from 48 to 326 V. Distribution power losses and current conduction limitations on conductors were modeled. Also addressed were opportunities for centralized uninterruptible power supplies and needs for circuit protection. Rather than repeat the approach of [4], we summarize and accept the papers general conclusions concerning application of dc distribution to commercial premises: (1) System losses can be reduced and system efficiency thereby improved if a moderately high dc voltage is adopted for premise distribution. At 326 V dc, the authors concluded that existing commercial conductors could be used without modification. (2) If battery energy storage were added to their commercial office buildings dc distribution bus, it could supply emergency backup power to their entire premise for hours, not 15 minutes or less, as is now typical for device uninterruptible power supplies. This centralized emergency backup solution also cost less than multiple individual backup power supplies. (3) Adequate premise dc fault protection was found to be available from commercially available circuit breakers at the dc voltage under consideration [12]. (4) The authors recognized other safety advantages, too, including less dc contact danger to humans and avoidance from exposing humans to electromagnetic fields. This papers background permits us to proceed from an assertion that combinations of conductor, dc potential, and circuit protection can be engineered to provide dc power to premise loads with efficiencies similar to existing ac premise systems. In fact, we eliminate the further consideration of conductor losses altogether by asserting that each of our cases to be studied will have identical conductor losses. The next step should be evaluation of system conversion efficiency for various conversion strategies in the premise, which were only

hinted in the cited paper. We focus on residential systems. The 2001 Energy Information Administration data [14] lists typical residential electrical consumption for major categories of household loads. These major categories and their relative energy consumption are reproduced in Table I. The relative load fractions will be used to weight each load category, and the categories themselves represent similar loads that will possess similar power conversion requirements.
TABLE I AVERAGE ELECTRICAL CONSUMPTION BY APPLIANCE CATEGORY [14] U.S. Mean Household Energy (%) 31.2 26.7 9.1 4.4 / 4.4 7.2 6.7 2.5 7.7

Appliance Category Heating, Ventilation, Cooling Kitchen Appliances Water Heating Lighting (Incandescent / Fluor.) Home Electronics Laundry Appliances Other Equipment Other

Given far too many degrees of freedom, innumerable unique converter topologies, and a desire to model a system for which there is not yet a complete set of components on the market, we accept simplifications that will permit us to proceed. This authors power conversion experience and [8] give us confidence to generously assert that each power conversion stage loses about 2.5 % of the energy it converts. This estimation, while not perfect, has good predictive ability for first-order assessments. Approximately 102.5 % of a transformers secondary power must be supplied to its primary; a transformer rectifier requires an input energy about (1.025)2 times its output energy; a three-stage converter requires (1.025)3 times its output energy, and so on. Additional implicit assumptions are necessary: (1) We ignore effects of daily and seasonal load patterns that could alter the losses attributed to each load category. Appliance power is treated as a constant. (2) We assume that each ac load has an acceptable counterpart in the dc distribution system. Comparable permanent magnet motors replace induction motors with no penalty imposed. (3) The number of conversion steps and their inefficiencies accumulate for each load from the point of common connectionwhat is presently the utility side of the premise transformer. (4) With the exception of lighting, all categories are assigned a single common number of conversion steps. Lighting was divided equally into two subcategoriesincandescent and fluorescentbecause the two lighting types must be assigned different numbers of conversion steps. (5) This strategy admittedly fails to account for numerous qualities that would be considered for a specific and real premise, where individual appliance efficiency tradeoffs and even insulation would be expected to sway our engineering decision. (6) The assignment of numbers of conversion steps is admittedly arguable because so many conversion topologies exist or could evolve for each appliance category should dc

distribution become common. (7) The costs of additional premise infrastructure and any differences in purchase costs between ac and dc appliances are ignored. This analysis also ignores potential improved efficiencies that might result from scaling of converters using one high-quality converter instead of multiple inexpensive ones, for example. VI. MODEL RESULTS We now apply this simple strategy to various ac and dc premise distribution topologies (refer to Table II). Case 1 is a model of the existing ac distribution system serving the typical home of Table I. Most entries show only one conversionthat of the ac distribution transformer. Only fluorescent lighting and home electronics were assigned multiple conversion stages. For Case 2, we model a system where rectification occurs immediately and supplies a premise dc bus. All appliances reflect at least the two conversion steps from transformation and rectification. The fact that all energy must become rectified from the bulk ac distribution system results in about a 2.0 % conversion efficiency penalty for the premise dc distribution Case 2 when it is compared against Case 1. Recall that the reported average conversion efficiencies of Table II are weighted by the fraction that each residential load type contributes to total residential load. Commercial premises would be expected to have higher percentages of fluorescent lighting and electronics in their loads. Therefore, similar estimates performed for conversion efficiencies in commercial premises would be more favorable for the Case 2 scenario than was shown here for residences.
TABLE II COMPARISON OF SYSTEM CONVERSION EFFICIENCY FOR A CONVENTIONAL AC HOME (CASE 1) AND ONE WITH A PREMISE DC DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM (CASE 2) Case 1. Ac Distribution Number Efficiency Conversions (%) 1 97.6 1 97.6 1 97.6 1 97.6 3 92.9 3 92.9 1 97.6 1 97.6 1 97.6 97.0 % Case 2. Dc Distribution Number Efficiency Conversions (%) 2 95.2 2 95.2 2 95.2 2 95.2 2 95.2 3 92.9 2 95.2 2 95.2 2 95.2 95.0 %

batteries. Case 4 models a fuel cell in an ac system as is frequently suggested for stationary fuel cell systems [6]. One can see that additional conversion steps are required to convert from dc to ac and, in some cases, back to dc again. Case 3 shows that generation of dc directly onto a premise dc bus is advantageous with conversion efficiencies comparable to those in our existing ac approach. Using a local dc generator connected to the ac grid and thus requiring an inverter, as in Case 4, incurs unfavorable conversion inefficiencies.

Appliance Heating, Vent. Kitchen Appl. Water Heating Lights-Incand. Lights-Fluor. Home Elect. Laundry Appl. Other Equip. Other End Use Weighted Ave.

Case 3. Premise Fuel Cell with Dc Distribution Number Efficiency Conversions (%) 1 97.6 1 97.6 1 97.6 1 97.6 2 95.2 2 95.2 1 97.6 1 97.6 1 97.6 97.3 %

Case 4. Premise Fuel Cell with Ac Distribution Number Efficiency Conversions (%) 2 95.2 2 95.2 2 95.2 2 95.2 4 90.6 5 88.4 2 95.2 2 95.2 2 95.2 94.5 %

VII. CONCLUSIONS Groundwork was laid for the comparison of dc and ac lowvoltage and premise energy distribution networks. The advantages of ac and dc systems were listed as were several contemporary issues that could affect the future inclusion of dc distribution into our present power systems. After accepting the conclusions of a cited paper, in which conductor losses in commercial premise ac and dc distribution systems had been compared, we addressed how series conversion losses may affect the viability of premise dc distribution. A systematic method was introduced to create a fair comparison of such hypothetical energy systems. The use of residential dc distribution by itself was predicted to be disadvantageous because of the inefficiency of the combined transformer rectifier needed to convert bulk ac power to premise dc power. However, it was shown that fuel cells or other local dc generation that feed directly into a premise dc bus could have favorable conversion losses. This was especially true when compared against a premise dc generation source that must immediately convert its energy to ac form. REFERENCES
[1] R. Moran, Executioners Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair, New York: Random House, 2002.

Appliance Heating, Vent. Kitchen Appl. Water Heating Lights-Incand. Lights-Fluor. Home Elect. Laundry Appl. Other Equip. Other End Use Weighted Ave.

Refer now to Table III, Case 3, in which a fuel cell or other premise dc generation contributes the entire homes energy. One can probably assume battery support of the dc bus is provided for short-term burst power without affecting this discussion. Selection of a photovoltaic dc generator or another intermittent source would require battery energy storage, but we have not yet laid needed groundwork for including both conversion losses and losses from charging and discharging

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Donald J. Hammerstrom (S94, M95, SM06) earned a B.A. in chemistry from St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, a B.S. in education from Eastern Montana College, Billings, Montana and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana in 1991 and 1994, respectively. He is employed by Battelle Memorial Institute as a senior research engineer in the Energy Science and Technology Division of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Washington. He presently manages field demonstrations of smart grid technologies for the U.S. Department of Energy, leads technology development of grid-responsive loads, and develops power electronic converter applications. Prior to joining Battelle, he designed power converters, biological sample collectors, and surface decontamination systems for startup companies in Washington State. He has authored United States patents in the diverse areas of energy management systems, power electronic converters, microtechnology, microbe decontamination, and aerosol sample collection.