This story about the use of battery/freewheel based Frequency Regulators confused me about how the 60hz frequency of the North American power grid was set--saying that it was kept at that frequency by balancing load and supply. I used to think that it was only voltage which was affected by this balance, and that the frequency was determined by the speed of the rotors in the generator. EG see Wikipedia's page on Alternator Synchronization.

Can someone help me understand the physics behind this?


3 Answers 3


The physics is actually much easier than it seems at first glance.

Power generators are engines just like the everyday ones we see all around in our cars, lawnmowers, snowblowers, etc.

Except for new power sources like some wind and solar systems with electronic inverters, the vast majority of power is supplied by large rotating AC generators turning in synch with the frequency of the grid. The frequency of all these generators will be identical and is tied directly to the RPM of the generators themselves, generally 3600 RPM for gas turbines and 1800 RPM for nuclear plants. If there is sufficient power in the generators then the frequency can be maintained at the desired rate (i.e. 50Hz or 60Hz depending on the locale).

The power from the individual generators will lead the grid in phase slightly by an amount roughly corresponding to the power they deliver to the grid.

An increase in the power load is accompanied by a concurrent increase in the power supplied to the generators, generally by the governors automatically opening a steam or gas inlet valve to supply more power to the turbine. However, if there is not sufficient power, even for a brief period of time, then generator RPM and the frequency drops.

This is much like what happens to a car on cruise control if you start going up a hill, if the hill is not too steep you can maintain speed, once you reach the limits of the torque supplied by the engine, the car and engine slow down. If the combined output of all the generators cannot supply enough power then the frequency will drop for the entire grid. All the generators slow down just like your car engine on a hill.

For large grids the presence of many generators and a large distributed load makes frequency management easier because any given load is a much smaller percentage of the combined capacity. For smaller grids, there will be a much larger fluctuation in capacity as delays in matching power supplied are harder to manage when the loads represent a relatively larger percentage of the generated power.

So a battery systems like the one in the article is really designed to keep short-term fluctuations in power requirements from dropping the frequency because of lags in the governors and generators which require a finite time to adjust to the new power requirements. These "frequency regulator" power stations can supply very high power for short bursts to keep the power requirements even so that the other generators don't see too much load faster than they can respond due to mechanical limitations.

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    $\begingroup$ I think I understand. It's like how turning the crank of a hand generator gets harder when the resistance across the contacts is increased, so the increase of load on the power grid literally makes it harder to turn the alternator's axle, which--unless countered by an increase in power--leads to the rotor slowing down, and therefore the frequency. Am I rite? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 9, 2011 at 22:01
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, that's it exactly. The load makes it harder to turn the all the generator shafts which then requires more power to compensate and if the total power requirements exceed the total power available on the grid then all the generators slow down since they are connected together. $\endgroup$
    – inflector
    Commented Jan 9, 2011 at 22:06
  • $\begingroup$ Would it even be logical to assume that all those automatic governors of underlying energy source vary their settings based on the frequency? That seems to be the easiest way to tell whether the grid i over- or under-powered? $\endgroup$
    – Cray
    Commented Dec 1, 2011 at 8:45
  • $\begingroup$ It's also interesting to note that distributors sometimes intentionally lower the frequency (albeit by an amount that will rarely exceed 1%) for extended periods in consideration of stresses on the system. For the reasons mentioned in the article, varying frequency is harder to get away with than varying voltage (which can easily change by 10% from the standard). Of course, distributors also have higher reliability subsystems for special industrial customers than for residential consumers. $\endgroup$
    – user10851
    Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 8:21
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    $\begingroup$ @inflector You did a passing mention of new power sources with electronic inverters. Are those affected by the excess load, lesser load? If yes, then how? $\endgroup$
    – PF4Public
    Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 19:31

Applying Newton's equations for rotating masses to a turbine-generator system gives the following expression (Samarakoon, after Kundur).

$J\frac{d^2\theta}{dt^2}=T_m - T_e$

$\theta$: angle (rad) of the rotor with respect to a stationary reference.
$J$: moment of inertia.
$T_m$: mechanical torque from the turbine.
$T_e$: electrical torque on the rotor.

The Inertial response for a generator is characterised by its Inertia Constant, H, with units of seconds, defined as (Samarakoon, p40):

the ratio of kinetic energy stored at synchronous speed $\omega$ to the generator kVA or MVA rating, $S$.

$$ H = \frac{0.5J\omega^2}{S}$$

An equivalent Inertia Constant for an entire system can be estimated: (Ekanayake, Jenkins, Strbac)

$$ H_{equivalent} = \sum_{gens} H_{gen}/S_{gen} $$

A value for the GB system (in 2008) was estimated at 9s (by Samarakoon), projected to drop as far as 3s in 2020 with a high wind penetration.

When modelling Inertial response (more commonly referred to as frequency response), a power system can be simplified to a transfer function (Ekanayake, Jenkins, Strbac):

$$ \frac{1}{2H_{equivalent}s +D} $$

$D$ is known as the Damping Coefficient - the term encapsulates response from frequency responsive demand (Mu,Wu,Ekanayake,Jenkins,Jia).

To maintin system stability, the frequency must be closely controlled. Traditionally this is achieved through droop controllers on steam turbine generators. Increasingly, however, energy storage and demand response are contributing.

See this question also; https://engineering.stackexchange.com/questions/2245/quantifying-inertia-on-the-electricity-grid


Higher load in the grid -> lower overall frequency and vice versa

More info here:

Frequency and load

The primary reason for accurate frequency control is to allow the flow of alternating current power from multiple generators through the network to be controlled. The trend in system frequency is a measure of mismatch between demand and generation, and so is a necessary parameter for load control in interconnected systems. Frequency of the system will vary as load and generation change. Increasing the mechanical input power to a synchronous generator will not greatly affect the system frequency but will produce more electric power from that unit. During a severe overload caused by tripping or failure of generators or transmission lines the power system frequency will decline, due to an imbalance of load versus generation. Loss of an interconnection, while exporting power (relative to system total generation) will cause system frequency to rise. Automatic generation control (AGC) is used to maintain scheduled frequency and interchange power flows. Control systems in power plants detect changes in the network-wide frequency and adjust mechanical power input to generators back to their target frequency. This counteracting usually takes a few tens of seconds due to the large rotating masses involved. Temporary frequency changes are an unavoidable consequence of changing demand. Exceptional or rapidly changing mains frequency is often a sign that an electricity distribution network is operating near its capacity limits, dramatic examples of which can sometimes be observed shortly before major outages. Frequency protective relays on the power system network sense the decline of frequency and automatically initiate load shedding or tripping of interconnection lines, to preserve the operation of at least part of the network. Small frequency deviations (i.e.- 0.5 Hz on a 50 Hz or 60 Hz network) will result in automatic load shedding or other control actions to restore system frequency. Smaller power systems, not extensively interconnected with many generators and loads, will not maintain frequency with the same degree of accuracy. Where system frequency is not tightly regulated during heavy load periods, the system operators may allow system frequency to rise during periods of light load, to maintain a daily average frequency of acceptable accuracy.[27][28] Portable generators, not connected to a utility system, need not tightly regulate their frequency because typical loads are insensitive to small frequency deviations.

  • $\begingroup$ You should link to the page whenever you make citation. Also, your answer should be more related to what the question said. $\endgroup$
    – unsym
    Commented Dec 15, 2012 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ Currently, there's not much other than copied content. Could you write this in your own words and tailor it too directly address the question? Thanks. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 15, 2012 at 16:37

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