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St. Clair Power Plant, a coal-fired plant in Michigan. It was once the world's largest power plant.

A power station (also referred to as a generating station, power plant, or powerhouse) is an industrial facility for the generation of electric power.[1][2][3]

Power plant is also used to refer to the engine in ships, aircraft and other large vehicles. Some prefer to use the term energy center because it more accurately describes what the plants do, which is the conversion of other forms of energy, like chemical energy, gravitational potential energy or heat energy into electrical energy. However, power plant is the most common term in the U.S, while elsewhere power station and power plant are both widely used, power station prevailing in many Commonwealth countries and especially in the United Kingdom.

At the center of nearly all power stations is a generator, a rotating machine that converts mechanical energy into electrical energy by creating relative motion between a magnetic field and a conductor. The energy source harnessed to turn the generator varies widely. It depends chiefly on which fuels are easily available and on the types of technology that the power company has access to.


Thermal power stations

Rotor of a modern steam turbine, used in power station.

In thermal power stations, mechanical power is produced by a heat engine that transforms thermal energy, often from combustion of a fuel, into rotational energy. Most thermal power stations produce steam, and these are sometimes called steam power stations. Not all thermal energy can be transformed into mechanical power, according to the second law of thermodynamics. Therefore, there is always heat lost to the environment. If this loss is employed as useful heat, for industrial processes or district heating, the power plant is referred to as a cogeneration power plant or CHP (combined heat-and-power) plant. In countries where district heating is common, there are dedicated heat plants called heat-only boiler stations. An important class of power stations in the Middle East uses by-product heat for the desalination of water.



Geothermal power station in Iceland.
Coal Power Station in Tampa, United States.

Thermal power plants are classified by the type of fuel and the type of prime mover installed.

By fuel

By prime mover

  • Steam turbine plants use the dynamic pressure generated by expanding steam to turn the blades of a turbine. Almost all large non-hydro plants use this system. About 80% of all electric power produced in the world is by use of steam turbines.
  • Gas turbine plants use the dynamic pressure from flowing gases (air and combustion products) to directly operate the turbine. Natural-gas fuelled (and oil fueled) combustion turbine plants can start rapidly and so are used to supply "peak" energy during periods of high demand, though at higher cost than base-loaded plants. These may be comparatively small units, and sometimes completely unmanned, being remotely operated. This type was pioneered by the UK, Princetown[5] being the world's first, commissioned in 1959.
  • Combined cycle plants have both a gas turbine fired by natural gas, and a steam boiler and steam turbine which use the hot exhaust gas from the gas turbine to produce electricity. This greatly increases the overall efficiency of the plant, and many new baseload power plants are combined cycle plants fired by natural gas.
  • Internal combustion Reciprocating engines are used to provide power for isolated communities and are frequently used for small cogeneration plants. Hospitals, office buildings, industrial plants, and other critical facilities also use them to provide backup power in case of a power outage. These are usually fuelled by diesel oil, heavy oil, natural gas and landfill gas.
  • Microturbines, Stirling engine and internal combustion reciprocating engines are low-cost solutions for using opportunity fuels, such as landfill gas, digester gas from water treatment plants and waste gas from oil production.

Cooling towers

All thermal power plants produce waste heat energy as a byproduct of the useful electrical energy produced. The amount of waste heat energy equals or exceeds the amount of electrical energy produced. Gas-fired power plants can achieve 50%* conversion efficiency while coal and oil plants achieve around 30-49%*. The waste heat produces a temperature rise in the atmosphere which is small compared to that of greenhouse-gas emissions from the same power plant. Natural draft wet cooling towers at nuclear power plants and at some large fossil fuel fired power plants use large hyperbolic chimney-like structures (as seen in the image at the left) that release the waste heat to the ambient atmosphere by the evaporation of water (lower left image). However, the mechanical induced-draft or forced-draft wet cooling towers (as seen in the image to the right) in many large thermal power plants, nuclear power plants, fossil fired power plants, petroleum refineries, petrochemical plants, geothermal, biomass and waste to energy plants use fans to provide air movement upward through downcoming water and are not hyperbolic chimney-like structures. The induced or forced-draft cooling towers are typically rectangular, box-like structures filled with a material that enhances the contacting of the upflowing air and the downflowing water.[6][7]

In areas with restricted water use a dry cooling tower or radiator, directly air cooled, may be necessary, since the cost or environmental consequences of obtaining make-up water for evaporative cooling would be prohibitive. These have lower efficiency and higher energy consumption in fans than a wet, evaporative cooling tower.

Where economically and environmentally possible, electric companies prefer to use cooling water from the ocean, or a lake or river, or a cooling pond, instead of a cooling tower. This type of cooling can save the cost of a cooling tower and may have lower energy costs for pumping cooling water through the plant's heat exchangers. However, the waste heat can cause the temperature of the water to rise detectably. Power plants using natural bodies of water for cooling must be designed to prevent intake of organisms into the cooling cycle. A further environmental impact would be organisms that adapt to the warmer plant water and may be injured if the plant shuts down in cold weather.

In recent years, recycled wastewater, or grey water, has been used in cooling towers. The Calpine Riverside and the Calpine Fox power stations in Wisconsin as well as the Calpine Mankato power station in Minnesota are among these facilities.

  • The efficiency of a process that uses heat to boil water, to produce steam, that drives a turbine, that produces electricity, is independent of the fuel used. Coal, nuclear and gas power plants all have the same theoretical efficiency, observed differences are due mainly to different patterns of use, particularly powering up and shutting down. If a system is on constantly (base load) it will be more efficient that one that is used intermittently(peak load).

Other sources of energy

Other power stations use the energy from wave or tidal motion , wind, sunlight or the energy of falling water, hydroelectricity. These types of energy sources are called renewable energy.

A hydroelectric dam and plant on the Muskegon river in Michigan, United States.


Hydroelectric dams impound a reservoir of water and release it through one or more water turbines to generate electricity.

Pumped storage

A pumped storage hydroelectric power plant is a net consumer of energy but decreases the price of electricity. Water is pumped to a high reservoir when the demand, and price, for electricity is low. During hours of peak demand, when the price of electricity is high, the stored water is released through turbines to produce electric power.


Nellis Solar Power Plant in the United States.

A solar photovoltaic power plant uses photovoltaic cells to convert sunlight into direct current electricity using the photoelectric effect. This type of plant does not use rotating machines for energy conversion.

Solar thermal power plants are another type of solar power plant. They use either parabolic troughs or heliostats to direct sunlight onto a pipe containing a heat transfer fluid, such as oil. The heated oil is then used to boil water into steam, which turns a turbine that drives an electrical generator. The central tower type of solar thermal power plant uses hundreds or thousands of mirrors, depending on size, to direct sunlight onto a receiver on top of a tower. Again, the heat is used to produce steam to turn turbines that drive electrical generators.

There is yet another type of solar thermal electric plant. The sunlight strikes the bottom of a water pond, warming the lowest layer of water which is prevented from rising by a salt gradient. A Rankine cycle engine exploits the temperature difference in the water layers to produce electricity.

Not many solar thermal electric plants have been built. Most of them can be found in the Mojave Desert of the United States although Sandia National Laboratory (again in the United States), Israel and Spain have also built a few plants.


Wind turbine in front of a thermal power station in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Wind turbines can be used to generate electricity in areas with strong, steady winds, sometimes offshore. Many different designs have been used in the past, but almost all modern turbines being produced today use a three-bladed, upwind design. Grid-connected wind turbines now being built are much larger than the units installed during the 1970s, and so produce power more cheaply and reliably than earlier models. With larger turbines (on the order of one megawatt), the blades move more slowly than older, smaller, units, which makes them less visually distracting and safer for airborne animals. Old turbines are still used at some wind farms, for example at Altamont Pass and Tehachapi Pass.

Typical power output

The power generated by a power station is measured in multiples of the watt, typically megawatts (10^6 watts) or gigawatts (10^9 watts). Power stations vary greatly in capacity depending on the type of power plant and on historical, geographical and economic factors. The following examples offer a sense of the scale.

The power generated by a large wind turbine is of the order of 1 or 2 megawatts. Wind turbines are typically installed in a group called a Wind farm.

A typical Canadian wind farm, the Port Alma Wind Farm in Ontario, has 44 turbines and a capacity of 101.2 Megawatts.
The largest wind farm in the world is Florida Power & Light's Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center, located in Taylor County, Texas, with 421 turbines and a capacity of 735 Megawatts.

Large coal-fired, nuclear, and hydroelectric power stations can generate hundreds of Megawatts to multiple Gigawatts. Some examples:

The Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in the USA has a rated capacity of 802 Megawatts.
The coal-fired Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station in the UK has a rated capacity of 2 Gigawatts.
The Aswan Dam hydro-electric plant in Egypt has a capacity of 2.1 Gigawatts.
The Three Gorges Dam hydro-electric plant in China, still under construction, will have a capacity of 22.5 Gigawatts when complete.

Gas Turbine power plants can generate tens to hundreds of Megawatts. Some examples:

The Indian Queens simple-cycle peaking power station in Cornwall UK, with a single gas turbine is rated 140 Megawatts.
The Medway Power Station, a combined-cycle power station in Kent, UK with two gas turbines and one steam turbine, is rated 700 Megawatts.[8]


The power station operator has several duties in the electrical generating facility. Operators are responsible for the safety of the work crews that frequently do repairs on the mechanical and electrical equipment. They maintain the equipment with periodic inspections and log temperatures, pressures and other important information at regular intervals. Operators are responsible for starting and stopping the generators depending on need. They are able to synchronize and adjust the voltage output of the added generation with the running electrical system without upsetting the system. They must know the electrical and mechanical systems in order to troubleshoot problems in the facility and add to the reliability of the facility. Operators must be able to respond to an emergency and know the procedures in place to deal with it.

See also


  1. ^ British Electricity International (1991). Modern Power Station Practice: incorporating modern power system practice (3rd Edition (12 volume set) ed.). Pergamon. ISBN 0-08-040510-X. 
  2. ^ Babcock & Wilcox Co. (2005). Steam: Its Generation and Use (41st edition ed.). ISBN 0-9634570-0-4. 
  3. ^ Thomas C. Elliott, Kao Chen, Robert Swanekamp (coauthors) (1997). Standard Handbook of Powerplant Engineering (2nd edition ed.). McGraw-Hill Professional. ISBN 0-07-019435-1. 
  4. ^ Nuclear Power Plants Information, by International Atomic Energy Agency
  5. ^ SWEB's Pocket Power Stations
  6. ^ J.C. Hensley (Editor) (2006). Cooling Tower Fundamentals (2nd Ed. ed.). SPX Cooling Technologies. 
  7. ^ Beychok, Milton R. (1967). Aqueous Wastes from Petroleum and Petrochemical Plants (4th Edition ed.). John Wiley and Sons. LCCN 67019834.  (Includes cooling tower material balance for evaporation emissions and blowdown effluents. Available in many university libraries)
  8. ^ CCGT Plants in South England, by Power Plants Around the World

External links


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