In a simple alternating current (AC) circuit consisting of a source and a linear load, both the current and voltage are sinusoidal. If the load is purely resistive, the two quantities reverse their polarity at the same time. At every instant the product of voltage and current is positive, indicating that the direction of energy flow does not reverse. In this case, only real power is transferred.
If the loads are purely reactive, then the voltage and current are 90 degrees out of phase. For half of each cycle, the product of voltage and current is positive, but on the other half of the cycle, the product is negative, indicating that on average, exactly as much energy flows toward the load as flows back. There is no net energy flow over one cycle. In this case, only reactive energy flows—there is no net transfer of energy to the load.
Practical loads have resistance, inductance, and capacitance, so both real and reactive power will flow to real loads. Power engineers measure apparent power as the magnitude of the vector sum of real and reactive power. Apparent power is the product of the root-mean-square of voltage and current.
Engineers care about apparent power, because even though the current associated with reactive power does no work at the load, it heats the wires, wasting energy. Conductors, transformers and generators must be sized to carry the total current, not just the current that does useful work.
Another consequence is that adding the apparent power for two loads will not accurately give the total apparent power unless they have the same displacement between current and voltage (the same power factor).