A power station or power plant is a facility for the generation of electric power. '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 centre 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 what fuels are easily available and the types of technology that the power company has access to.
Thermal power stations
In thermal power stations, mechanical power is produced by a heat engine, which transforms thermal energy, often from combustion of a fuel, into rotational energy. Most thermal power plants produce steam, and these are sometimes called steam power plants. Not all thermal energy can be transformed to mechanical power, according to the second law of thermodynamics. Therefore, thermal power plants also produce low-temperature heat. If no use is found for the heat, it is lost to the environment. If reject heat 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 byproduct heat for desalination of water.
* Nuclear power plants use a nuclear reactor's heat to operate a steam turbine generator.
* Fossil fuel powered plants may also use a steam turbine generator or in the case of Natural gas fired plants may use a combustion turbine.
* Geothermal power plants use steam extracted from hot underground rocks.
* Renewable energy plants may be fuelled by waste from sugar cane, municipal solid waste, landfill methane, or other forms of biomass.
* In integrated steel mills, blast furnace exhaust gas is a low-cost, although low-energy-density, fuel.
* Waste heat from industrial processes is occasionally concentrated enough to use for power generation, usually in a steam boiler and turbine.
By prime mover
* Steam turbine plants use the pressure generated by expanding steam to turn the blades of a turbine.
* Gas turbine plants use the heat from gases to directly operate the turbine. Natural-gas fuelled 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.
* Combined cycle plants have both a gas turbine fired by natural gas, and a steam boiler and steam turbine which use the exhaust gas from the gas turbine to produce electricity. This greatly increases the overall efficiency of the plant, and most 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 and waste heat
Because of the fundamental limits to thermodynamic efficiency of any heat engine, all thermal power plants produce waste heat as a byproduct of the useful electrical energy produced. Natural draft wet cooling towers at nuclear power plants and at some large thermal power plants are 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.
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, 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 rectangular, box-like structures filled with a material that enhances the contacting of the upflowing air and the downflowing water.
In desert areas a dry cooling tower or radiator may be necessary, since the cost of 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 temperature of water when the plant is operating that may be injured if the plant shuts down in cold weather.
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.
Hydroelectricity is electricity obtained from hydropower. Most hydroelectric power comes from the potential energy of dammed water driving a water turbine and generator. Less common variations make use of water's kinetic energy or undamned sources such as tidal power. Hydroelectricity is a renewable energy source.
The energy extracted from water depends not only on the volume but on the difference in height between the source and the water's outflow. This height difference is called the head. The amount of potential energy in water is directly proportional to the head. To obtain very high head, water for a hydraulic turbine may be run through a large pipe called a penstock.
While many supply public electricity networks, some projects were created for private commercial purposes. For example, aluminium processing requires substantial amounts of electricity, and in Britain's Scottish Highlands there are examples at Kinlochleven and Lochaber, designed and constructed during the early years of the 20th century. Similarly, the 'van Blommestein' lake, dam and power station were constructed in Suriname to provide electricity for the Alcoa aluminum industry. In many parts of Canada (the provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador) hydroelectricity is used so extensively that the word "hydro" is used to refer to any electricity delivered by a power utility. The government-run power utilities in these provinces are called BC Hydro, Manitoba Hydro, Hydro One (formerly "Ontario Hydro"), Hydro-Québec and Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro respectively. Hydro-Québec is the world's largest hydroelectric generating company, with a total installed capacity (2005) of 31,512 MW.
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 during the night 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 to produce electric power. Some pumped storage plants are actually not net consumers of electricity because they release some of the water from the lower reservoir downstream, either continuously or in bursts.
A solar photovoltaic power plant converts sunlight directly into electrical energy, which may need conversion to alternating current for transmission to users. This type of plant does not use rotating machines for energy conversion. Solar thermal electric plants are another type of solar power plant. They direct sunlight using either parabolic troughs or heliostats. Parabolic troughs direct sunlight onto a pipe containing a heat transfer fluid, such as oil, which is then used to boil water, which turns the generator. The central tower type of 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. There is yet another type of solar thermal electric plant. The sunlight strikes the bottom of the pond, warming the lowest layer which is prevented from rising by a salt gradient. A Rankine cycle engine exploits the temperature difference in the layers to produce electricity. Not many solar thermal electric plants have been built. Most of them can be found in the Mojave Desert, although Sandia National Laboratory, Israel and Spain have also built a few plants.
Wind turbines can be used to generate electricity in areas with strong, steady winds. Many different designs have been used in the past, but almost all modern turbines being produced today use the Dutch three-bladed, upwind design. Grid-connected wind turbines now being built are much larger than the units installed during the 1970's, and so produce power more cheaply and reliably than earlier models. With larger turbines (greater than 100 kW), the blades move more slowly than older, smaller (less than 100 kW) units, which makes them less visually distracting and safer for airborne animals. However, the old turbines can still be seen at some wind farms, particularly at Altamont Pass and Tehachapi Pass.