Producers consumers balance in the grid

In a large distribution grid, it is said that consumers and producers must be in balance; what that means physically, in correct (not simplistic) mathematical formulation, is not clear: perfect balance doesn't exist in nature and I'm fighting to understand how the out of balance system either stores and retrieves energy, and at what time scale the balancing done.

What are the short term energy flows?

When I turn on a light switch, power flows in the instant. Where is it taken from?

How much energy is present in the distribution network itself at any given time? Does it fluctuate?

Is there a good yet accessible description of the elasticity of the power system? Does it vibrate?

• TL/DR : the supply frequency is a good indicator of the state of balance. In the UK right now it's 50.035 Hz, so lightly loaded (more supply than demand)
– user16324
Commented Oct 26, 2019 at 22:32
• Where does it go? Who stores it? Commented Oct 26, 2019 at 22:39
• @curiousguy No one stores it, outside of comparatively tiny amounts stored in the capacitance and inductance of transmission lines and larger amounts stored in the rotational kinetic energy of turbines. Edit: Well, there are also the batteries used with PV arrays, I guess, and electric vehicles. Commented Oct 26, 2019 at 22:51
• @Hearth I mean in a pure simple grid w/ no fancy electric stuff, e-devices, smart-something-something... just a few industrial motors, lifts, and lights. Go back to the 50ties grid if you want. If perfect balance is not accomplished, it implies net energy level changes. Like an out of balance filling up emptying bathtub. Commented Oct 26, 2019 at 22:59
• Nobody stores it : the frequency is slightly high and so is the voltage. (Or low, at other nimes) It's monitored, and generating capacity is added or removed to keep the drift within close limits.
– user16324
Commented Oct 26, 2019 at 23:20

Grid frequency is where the magic hides....

There is energy storage in the inertia of all that spinning steel, and more the other side of those throttle valves in the PE of hot water trying to be steam.

The grid frequency is really the integral of the difference between generation and load divided by the total mass moment of inertia in the system.

$$\omega=\int{(Generation - Demand) dt}/k$$

You set the base load generators to go to full output if the frequency drops below say 50.5Hz, the mid cost stuff to go throttle up at 50Hz and the peaking plants (Expensive to run) to load up if the frequency drops below say 49.8Hz (There are way more graduations then this).

The effect is that the base load runs at full power, the mid cost stuff tracks the demand and the peaking plants idle until the mid cost stuff fails to meet demand at which point they load up.

Reactive power flow controls the system voltage and by controlling this you can control the load currents in the transmission network.

The dynamics are actually quite interesting especially during fault conditions and there are whole books written on that subject.

• With varying production of wind turbines and varying and not completely randomized user demand, this sounds like a deck of cards in the wind. Do home building items help the controlling loop? Like lifts, toasters, iPhone chargers? Commented Oct 27, 2019 at 0:32
• DC works for point to point links, and is in fact (when they get big enough) sometimes the optimum choice, but it gets horrifically complicated when dealing with large numbers of generators in a geographically dispersed grid. Quite apart from the obvious problems with stepping DC up and down, and the difficulty with circuit protection on high voltage, heavy current DC lines, grid control is a headache. In an AC network, frequency is sufficient to control generator output and reactive power controls network voltage. Commented Oct 27, 2019 at 11:26
• On the other hand, the stabilization scheme using frequency also only works because of large synchronous motors and generators - it would break down if only frequency-insensitive loads were present, e.g. like stepping power supplies or asynchronous motors. Commented Oct 27, 2019 at 12:18
• Local appliances have little impact and get smeared into the noise. Load creeps up and down gradually, but when there is a load dump (say a large factory has emergency off). you can introduce hiccups that can cause desynchronization. I think a missing point is the frequency synchronizes all producers and consumers together. Without this you don't have a grid. A single user like a large train or factory should be easily accomodated by all the inertia in the grid in time to stay synchronized. When the approximation of "infinite producer" goes away such a load dump can take the grid offline Commented Oct 27, 2019 at 16:44
• @hobbs the users don't have to do anything to participate in the balancing - any AC motor that's driven directly by grid frequency (which includes most simple motors, both small and huge) inevitably participates in the balancing as they consume slightly less power if the frequency is lower; and much less power during rapid decrease in frequency, and vice versa for frequency increases. That's how it works for thousands of people vacuuming their homes, that's how it works for a factory driving a conveyer belt. However, such motors are becoming a smaller and smaller part of the total grid load. Commented Oct 27, 2019 at 22:55

The grid can be imagined - and in some cases is - a single generator. The generator has a speed governor to maintain the frequency. The governor will have a certain reaction time and that means that should the load suddenly increase that the frequency will drop and if the load suddenly decreases the frequency will suddenly rise.

Figure 1. A mechanical governor. The vertical shaft is driven by the engine and the faster it goes the more the weights are thrown outward and upward (against gravity) causing the lever arm to reduce throttle. Source: Centrifugal governor.

I worked on one of these on a 1 MVA generator and, with the aid of a reed frequency meter was able to set the frequency of the generator very close to 50 Hz.

In a large distribution grid, it is said that consumers and producers must be in balance;

Correct. In your basic grid network there is no storage. The generators can only export if there is a load. The generators may be spinning and producing voltage but if there is no load then no current will flow. The energy source (steam, diesel, hydro, etc.) will have to be reduced quickly to prevent the frequency increasing.

perfect balance doesn't exist in nature

Yes it does. The floor beneath me is providing an upthrust which exactly matches the force of gravity on my body.

... and I'm fighting to understand how the out of balance system either stores and retrieves energy, ...

It doesn't.

... and at what time scale the balancing done.

That depends on the physical governor.

What are the short term energy flows?

Energy flow is determined by the load.

When I turn on a light switch, power flows in the instant. Where is it taken from?

From the generator via the grid.

How much energy is present in the distribution network itself at any given time? Does it fluctuate?

Is there a good yet accessible description of the elasticity of the power system? Does it vibrate?

• "The energy source (steam, diesel, hydro, etc.) will have to be reduced quickly" And if they don't, where is that excess energy "lost"? Or balancing works in that case? "perfect balance doesn't exist in nature" "Yes it does." This is were I'm lost. Does the floor know how much support you need? What about train passing on a bridge? "From the generator via the grid." Then other users should be robbed of power, no? Commented Oct 27, 2019 at 0:26
• In case of an enormous step change in load that cannot be accommodated by speed governors in time , all producers may desynchronize and effectively take the grid down cascading to more and more plants. . At which point you will need to shut down and start everything again. Commented Oct 27, 2019 at 16:42
• In other words, taking your train example. The grid frequency will droop by an imperceptible amount as the train energizes. as the size of the load increases or the generating power decreases such that the load is a relatively large portion of generating capacity this frequency change may be a step function. At which point the grid must adjust in the manner described by this and other answers, and if this does not happen, desynchronization will occur. Commented Oct 27, 2019 at 16:53

How does it store energy at electrical speeds?

It doesn't need to store an energy reserve if it can shed load. Power is energy/time. So if it can reduce power, that is as good. Fortunately, power is voltage x current. In a nominally constant-voltage system, the customer largely decides current, but the supplier decides voltage.

It can shed load by reducing voltage.

If voltage sags, generators are able to make proportionately more current, which is what the customer is really drawing. Many customer loads, however, are resistive, or at least, linear.

So this provides an insta-shed mechanism.

It can shed capacity by increasing voltage

Reverse of above. But it is also pushing power farther and fartyer out across the grid, and that consumes power two ways: transmission losses and phase disagreement with faraway generators. Because of the speed of light.

Consider two cities 600km apart on the same grid, thqt's 2 milliseconds at the speed of light. That is 36 or 45 degrees on the AC sinewave. So if power abruptly changes direction due to load changes, that is going to cause a lot of wire heating.

• If the "beat" moves from producers to consumers, how can you even have multiple producers? Commented Oct 27, 2019 at 21:57
• @curiousguy they all synchronize to each other. Once there are enough producers the wave is fairly stable for normal operation and self syncs. The interesting case is how you start this thing to begin with, generally a few high power plants that synchronize the next tier and so on. I am sure there are side channel synchronization of grid scale for subsets of stations or entire grid segments. Additionally, when enough production is lost and large load fluctuations may occur (national emergency event) it can take the whole thing offline through desynchronization grid-wide Commented Oct 28, 2019 at 1:48
• @crasic I made that a separate full blown Q: What is the speed of “electricity”? Commented Oct 28, 2019 at 1:49