Some utility and end-user problems with lightning impulses are closely related. One of the most significant ones is called the low-side surge problem by many utility engineers.

The name was coined by distribution transformer designers because it appears from the transformer’s perspective that a current surge is suddenly injected into the low-voltage side terminals. Utilities have not applied secondary arresters at low-voltage levels in great numbers.

From the customer’s point of view, it appears to be an impulse coming from the utility and is likely to be termed as “secondary surge.”

Both problems actually have different side effects of the same surge phenomenon—lightning current flowing from either the utility side or the customer side along the service cable neutral. Figure 23-26 shows one possible scenario.  

FIGURE 23-26 Primary arrester discharge current divides between pole and load ground.

Lightning strikes the primary line and the current is discharged through the primary arrester to the pole ground lead. This lead is also connected to the X2 bushing of the transformer at the top of the pole. Thus, some of the current will flow toward the load ground.

The amount of current into the load ground is primarily dependent on the size of the pole ground resistance relative to the load ground. Inductive elements may play a significant role in the current division for the front of the surge, but the ground resistances basically dictate the division of the bulk of the stroke current.

The current that flows through the secondary cables causes a voltage drop in the neutral conductor that is only partially compensated by mutual inductive effects with the phase conductors. Thus, there is a net voltage across the cable, forcing current through the transformer secondary windings and into the load as shown by the dashed lines in the figure.

If there is a complete path, substantial surge current will flow. As it flows through the transformer secondary, a surge voltage is induced in the primary, sometimes causing a layer-to-layer insulation failure near the grounded end.

If there is not a complete path, the voltage will buildup across the load and may flash over somewhere on the secondary. It is common for the meter gaps to flashover, but not always before there is damage on the secondary because the meter gaps are usually 6 to 8 kV, or higher.

The amount of voltage induced in the cable is dependent on the rate-of-rise of the current, which is dependent on other circuit parameters as well as the lightning stroke.

The chief power quality problems this causes are
• The impulse entering the load can cause failure or misoperation of load equipment.
• The utility transformer will fail causing an extended power outage.
• The failing transformer may subject the load to sustained steady-state overvoltages because part of the primary winding is shorted, decreasing the transformer turns ratio. Failure usually occurs in seconds, but has been known to take hours.

The key to this problem is the amount of surge current traveling through the secondary service cable. Keep in mind that the same effect occurs regardless of the direction of the current. All that is required is for the current to get into the ground circuits and for a substantial portion to flow through the cable on its way to another ground.

Thus, lightning strikes to either the utility system or the end-user facilities can produce the same symptoms. Transformer protection is more of an issue in residential services, but the secondary transients will appear in industrial systems as well.

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