PD can occur in a gaseous, liquid or solid insulating medium. It often starts within gas voids, such as voids in solid epoxy insulation or bubbles in transformer oil. Protracted partial discharge can erode solid insulation and eventually lead to breakdown of insulation.
PD usually begins within voids, cracks, or inclusions within a solid dielectric, at conductor-dielectric interfaces within solid or liquid dielectrics, or in bubbles within liquid dielectrics. Since PDs are limited to only a portion of the insulation, the discharges only partially bridge the distance between electrodes. PD can also occur along the boundary between different insulating materials.
Partial discharges within an insulating material are usually initiated within gas-filled voids within the dielectric. Because the dielectric constant of the void is considerably less than the surrounding dielectric, the electric field across the void is significantly higher than that across an equivalent distance of dielectric. If the voltage stress across the void is increased above the corona inception voltage (CIV) for the gas within the void, PD activity will start within the void.
PD can also occur along the surface of solid insulating materials if the surface tangential electric field is high enough to cause a breakdown along the insulator surface. This phenomenon commonly manifests itself on overhead line insulators, particularly on contaminated insulators during days of high humidity. Overhead lines use air as their insulation medium.
The equivalent circuit of a dielectric incorporating a cavity can be modeled as a capacitive voltage divider in parallel with another capacitor. The upper capacitor of the divider represents the parallel combination of the capacitances in series with the void and the lower capacitor represents the capacitance of the void. The parallel capacitor represents the remaining unvoided capacitance of the sample.