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Home / Technical Articles / Harmonic Distortion

Harmonic distortion is caused by nonlinear devices in the power system. A nonlinear device is one in which the current is not proportional to the applied voltage. Figure 1 illustrates this concept by the case of a sinusoidal voltage applied to a simple nonlinear resistor in which the voltage and current vary according to the curve shown. While the applied voltage is perfectly sinusoidal, the resulting current is distorted.

Increasing the voltage by a few percent may cause the current to double and take on a different waveshape. This is the source of most harmonic distortion in a power system.

Figure 1 Current distortion caused by nonlinear resistance.
Figure 1 Current distortion caused by nonlinear resistance.

Figure 2 illustrates that any periodic, distorted waveform can be expressed as a sum of sinusoids. When a waveform is identical from one cycle to the next, it can be represented as a sum of pure sine waves in which the frequency of each sinusoid is an integer multiple of the fundamental frequency of the distorted wave. This multiple is called a harmonic of the fundamental, hence the name of this subject matter.

The sum of sinusoids is referred to as a Fourier series, named after the great mathematician who discovered the concept.

Because of the above property, the Fourier series concept is universally applied in analyzing harmonic problems. The system can now be analyzed separately at each harmonic. In addition, finding the system response of a sinusoid of each harmonic individually is much more straightforward compared to that with the entire distorted waveforms. The outputs at each frequency are then combined to form a new Fourier series, from which the output waveform may be computed, if desired.

Often, only the magnitudes of the harmonics are of interest. When both the positive and negative half cycles of a waveform have identical shapes, the Fourier series contains only odd harmonics. This offers a further simplification for most power system studies because most common harmonic-producing devices look the same to both polarities. In fact, the presence of even harmonics is often a clue that there is something wrong – either with the load equipment or with the transducer used to make the measurement.

There are notable exceptions to this such as half-wave rectifiers and arc furnaces when the arc is random.

Figure 2 Fourier series representation of a distorted waveform
Figure 2 Fourier series representation of a distorted waveform

Usually, the higher-order harmonics (above the range of the 25th to 50th, depending on the system) are negligible for power system analysis.

While they may cause interference with low-power electronic devices, they are usually not damaging to the power system. It is also difficult to collect sufficiently accurate data to model power systems at these frequencies. Acommon exception to this occurs when there are system resonances in the range of frequencies. These resonances can be excited by notching or switching transients in electronic power converters. This causes voltage waveforms with multiple zero crossings which disrupt timing circuits. These resonances generally occur on systems with underground cable but no power factor correction capacitors.

If the power system is depicted as series and shunt elements, as is the conventional practice, the vast majority of the nonlinearities in the system are found in shunt elements (i.e., lods). The series impedance of the power delivery system (i.e., the short-circuit impedance between the source and the load) is remarkably linear. In transformers, also, the source of harmonics is the shunt branch (magnetizing impedance) of the common “T” model; the leakage impedance is linear.

Thus, the main sources of harmonic distortion will ultimately be end-user loads. This is not to say that all end users who experience harmonic distortion will themselves have significant sources of harmonics, but that the har-monic distortion generally originates with some end-user’s load or combination of loads.

SOURCE: Power Systems Quality by Roger C. Dugan/Mark F. McGranaghan

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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. Dan Bullard
    Jul 24, 2023

    You need to knock off this stuff claiming that an “unknown law of physics” called non-linear distortion is causing harmonics.

  2. yannir
    Jan 03, 2023


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