What kind of power service is in the United States? You probably answered 120-volt service. If you thought a little harder, you might remember that you have some 240-volt outlets and that some industrial service is three phase. There used to be DC service, but that was a long time ago. That’s about it, right? Turns out, no. There are a very few parts of the United States that have two-phase power. In addition, DC didn’t die as quickly as you might think. Why? It all boils down to history and technological inertia.
You probably have quite a few 120-volt power jacks in sight. It is pretty hard to find a residence or commercial building these days that doesn’t have these outlets. If you have a heavy duty electric appliance, you may have a 240-volt plug, too. For home service, the power company supplies 240 V from a center tapped transformer. Your 120V outlets go from one side to the center, while your 240V outlets go to both sides. This is split phase service.
Industrial customers, on the other hand, are likely to get three-phase service. With three-phase, there are three wires, each carrying the line voltage but out of phase with each other. This allows smaller conductors to carry more power and simplifies motor designs. So why are there still a few pockets of two-phase?
Our society needs energy, and lots of it. If you’re reading this then the odds are astronomically good that you’re on a computer somewhere using energy, with the power cord plugged into the mysterious “black box” that is the electrical grid. The same is true if you’re reading this on a laptop or phone, which was charged from said black box even though it may not be connected at this moment. No matter where you are, you’re connected to some sort of energy source almost all the time. For almost every one of us, we have power lines leading up to our homes, which presumably connect to a power plant somewhere. This network of power lines, substations, even more power lines, and power plants is colloquially known as the electrical grid which we will be exploring in a series of articles.
While the electrical grid is a little over a century old, humanity has been using various energy sources since the agricultural revolution at least. While it started with animal fat for candles, wind for milling grain, and forests for building civilizations, it moved on to coal and steam during the industrial revolution and has ended up in a huge interconnected network of power lines connected to nuclear, natural gas, coal, solar, and wind sites around the world. Regardless of the energy source, though, there’s one reason that we settled on using electricity as the medium for transporting energy: it’s the easiest way we’ve found to move it from place to place.