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Home / Technical Articles / What is the complex power and how it figures in power analysis

Power absorbed by a given load

Considerable effort has been expended over the years to express power relations as simply as possible. Power engineers have coined the term complex power, which they use to find the total effect of parallel loads.

What is the complex power and its function in power analysis
What is the complex power and its function in power analysis (on photo: Amprobe DM-III Multitest F 3000A Power Quality Recorder)

Complex power is important in power analysis because it contains all the information pertaining to the power absorbed by a given load.

The voltage and current phasors associated with a load
Figure 1 – The voltage and current phasors associated with a load

Consider the AC load in Figure 1 above. Given the phasor form V = Vm∠θv and I = Im∠θi of voltage v(t) and current i(t), the complex power S absorbed by the AC load is the product of the voltage and the complex conjugate of the current, or:

Complex power formulae(1.10)

assuming the passive sign convention (see Figure 1). In terms of the rms values:

Complex power formulae(1.11)


Vrms formulae(1.12)


Irms formulae(1.13)

Thus we may write Eq. (1.11) as:

Complex power formulae(1.14)

We notice from Eq. (1.14) that the magnitude of the complex power is the apparent power. Hence, the complex power is measured in volt-amperes (VA). Also, we notice that the angle of the complex power is the power factor angle.

The complex power may be expressed in terms of the load impedance Z. The load impedance Z may be written as:

Complex power formulae(1.15)

Thus, Vrms = Z × Irms. Substituting this into Eq. (1.11) gives

S formulae(1.16)

Since Z = R + jX, Eq. (1.16) becomes

S formulae(1.17)

where P and Q are the real and imaginary parts of the complex power; that is,

Active and reactive power formulae(1.18, 1.19)

P is the average or real power and it depends on the load’s resistance R. Q depends on the load’s reactance X and is called the reactive (or quadrature) power.

Comparing Eq. (1.14) with Eq. (1.17), we notice that:

Active and reactive power formulae

The real power P is the average power in watts delivered to a load. It is the only useful power. It is the actual power dissipated by the load. The reactive power Q is a measure of the energy exchange between the source and the reactive part of the load.

The unit of Q is the volt-ampere reactive (VAR) to distinguish it from the real power, whose unit is the watt.

We know that energy storage elements neither dissipate nor supply power, but exchange power back and forth with the rest of the network. In the same way, the reactive power is being transferred back and forth between the load and the source. It represents a lossless interchange between the load and the source.

Notice that:

  1. Q = 0 for resistive loads (unity pf)
  2. Q < 0 for capacitive loads (leading pf)
  3. Q > 0 for inductive loads (lagging pf)

Complex power (in VA) is the product of the rms voltage phasor and the complex conjugate of the rms current phasor. As a complex quantity, its real part is real power P and its imaginary part is reactive power Q.

Introducing the complex power enables us to obtain the real and reactive powers directly from voltage and current phasors.

Active, reactive, apparent, real, complex power and power factor

This shows how the complex power contains all the relevant power information in a given load.

It is a standard practice to represent S, P, and Q in the form of a triangle, known as the power triangle, shown in Fig. 2(a). This is similar to the impedance triangle showing the relationship between Z, R, and X, illustrated in Fig. 2(b).

(a) Power triangle, (b) impedance triangle
Figure 2 – (a) Power triangle, (b) impedance triangle

S contains all power information of a load. The real part of S is the real power P. Its imaginary part is the reactive power Q. Its magnitude is the apparent power S. And the cosine of its phase angle is the power factor PF.

The power triangle has four items:

  1. Apparent/complex power,
  2. Real power,
  3. Reactive power, and
  4. Power factor angle.

Given two of these items, the other two can easily be obtained from the triangle.

Power triangle
Figure 3 – Power triangle

As shown in Figure 3, when S lies in the first quadrant, we have an inductive load and a lagging PF. When S lies in the fourth quadrant, the load is capacitive and the PF is leading. It is also possible for the complex power to lie in the second or third quadrant.

This requires that the load impedance have a negative resistance, which is possible with active circuits.

Example with complex power calculations

Examples on complex power, power factor, average power and apparent power

Reference // Fundamentals of electric circuits by Charles K. Alexander and Matthew N. O. Sadiku (Purchase hardcopy form Amazon)

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Edvard Csanyi

Electrical engineer, programmer and founder of EEP. Highly specialized for design of LV/MV switchgears and LV high power busbar trunking (<6300A) in power substations, commercial buildings and industry facilities. Professional in AutoCAD programming.


  1. Peter Sauer
    Feb 07, 2022

    I am trying to find out when complex power was first written in the literature – do you know?

  2. G.S.SONI
    Oct 30, 2019


  3. Mohmmad Thapet
    Mar 23, 2017

    Dear Edvard Csanyi
    I ‘am electrical technical I work with power generated by 50 KVA Generators and I have 80 generators so please i need your help i need Management maintenance software or Excel Sheet to record and predict maintenance time for oil and fuel.

  4. andrew mackay
    Mar 19, 2017

    Our electrical engineering lecturer when highlighting the “complex” nature of pure inductance and capacitive loads and their relationship as defined by mathematics as imaginary numbers warned that we should use complex to describe the power as it would still exist and be certainly real enough if you touched it!

    • Jim
      Apr 12, 2022

      I like this. Note also that when you touch it, you’ve introduced real resistance and thus feel the real power as the stored energy is transferred through your body.

  5. Mamadou Sankhare
    Mar 18, 2017

    Je suis jeune professionnel en électricité j’adore vos technicité j’ aimerai vous proposer mon stage si possible

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