Many of the loads installed in present-day power systems are harmonic current generators. Combined with the impedance of the electrical system, the loads also produce harmonic voltages. The nonlinear loads may therefore be viewed as both harmonic current generators and harmonic voltage generators. Prior to the 1970s, speed control of AC motors was primarily achieved using belts and pulleys. Now, adjustable speed drives (ASDs) perform speed control functions very efficiently.

ASDs are generators of large harmonic currents. Fluorescent lights use less electrical energy for the same light output as incandescent lighting but produce substantial harmonic currents in the process. The explosion of personal computer use has resulted in harmonic current proliferation in commercial buildings. This section is devoted to describing, in no particular order, a few of the more common nonlinear loads that surround us in our everyday life.

Generator # 1. Fluorescent Lighting:

Figure 4.10 shows a current waveform at a distribution panel supplying exclusively fluorescent lights. The waveform is primarily comprised of the third and the fifth harmonic frequencies. The waveform also contains slight traces of even harmonics, especially of the higher frequency order. The current waveform is flat topped due to initiation of arc within the gas tube, which causes the voltage across the tube and the current to become essentially unchanged for a portion of each half of a cycle.

Generator # 2. Adjustable Speed Drives:

While several technologies exist for creating a variable voltage and variable frequency power source for the speed control of AC motors, the pulse-width modulation (PWM) drive technology is currently the most widely used.

Figure 4.11 shows current graphs at the ASD input lines with a motor operating at 60 Hz. The characteristic double hump for each half cycle of the AC waveform is due to conduction of the input rectifier modules for a duration of two 60° periods for each half cycle. As the operating frequency is reduced, the humps become pronounced with a large increase in the total harmonic distortion.

The THD of 74.2% for 45 Hz operation is excessive and can produce many deleterious effects. Figure 4.12 is the waveform of the voltage at the ASD input power lines. Large current distortions can produce significant voltage distortions.

In this particular case, the voltage THD is 8.3%, which is higher than levels typically found in most industrial installations. High levels of voltage THD also produce unwanted results.


This drive contains line side inductors which, along with the higher inductance of the motor, produce a current waveform with less distortion.

Generator # 3. Personal Computer and Monitor:

Figures 4.13 and 4.14 show the nonlinear current characteristics of a personal computer and a computer monitor, respectively. The predominance of the third and fifth harmonics is evident. The current THD for both devices exceeds 100%, as the result of high levels of individual distortions introduced by the third and fifth harmonics.

The total current drawn by a personal computer and its monitor is less than 2 A, but a typical high-rise building can contain several hundred computers and monitors. The net effect of this on the total current harmonic distortion of a facility is not difficult to visualize. So far we have examined some of the more common harmonic current generators.


The examples illustrate that a wide spectrum of harmonic currents is generated. Depending on the size of the power source and the harmonic current makeup, the composite harmonic picture will be different from facility to facility.