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Steam Turbine Electricity Generation Plants

Conventional Energy Generation

The first practical electricity generating system using a steam turbine was designed and made by Charles Parsons in 1885 and used for lighting an exhibition in Newcastle. Since then,
apart from getting bigger, turbine design has hardly changed and
Parson’s original design would not look out of place today. Despite the
introduction of many alternative technologies in the intervening 120 years, over 80 percent of the world’s
electricity is still generated by steam turbines driving rotary

The Energy Conversion Processes

Electrical energy generation using steam
turbines involves three energy conversions, extracting thermal energy
from the fuel and using it to raise steam, converting the thermal energy
of the steam into kinetic energy in the turbine and using a rotary
generator to convert the turbine’s mechanical energy into electrical


fossil fuel powered steam turbine electricity generation


  • Raising steam (Thermal Sources)
  • Steam is mostly raised from fossil fuel sources, three of
    which are shown in the above diagram but any convenient source of heat
    can be used.

    • Chemical Transformation
    • In fossil fuelled plants steam is raised by burning fuel,
      mostly coal but also oil and gas, in a combustion chamber. Recently
      these fuels have been supplemented by limited amounts of renewable
      biofuels and agricultural waste.

      The chemical process of burning the fuel releases heat by
      the chemical transformation (oxidation) of the fuel. This can never be
      perfect. There will be losses due to impurities in the fuel, incomplete
      combustion and heat and pressure losses in the combustion chamber and
      boiler. Typically these losses would amount to about 10% of the
      available energy in the fuel.

    • Nuclear Power
    • Steam for driving the turbine can also be raised by
      capturing the heat generated by controlled nuclear fission. This is
      discussed more fully in the section on Nuclear Power.

    • Solar Power
    • Similarly solar thermal energy can be used to raise steam, though this is less common.

    • Geothermal Energy
    • Steam emissions from naturally occurring aquifers are also used to power steam turbine power plants.


  • The Steam Turbine (Prime Mover)

    • Working Principles
    • High pressure steam is fed to the turbine
      and passes along the machine axis through multiple rows of alternately
      fixed and moving blades. From the steam inlet port of the turbine
      towards the exhaust point, the blades and the turbine cavity are
      progressively larger to allow for the expansion of the steam.

      The stationary blades act as nozzles in which the steam expands and emerges at an increased speed but lower pressure. (Bernoulli’s
      conservation of energy principle – Kinetic energy increases as pressure
      energy falls). As the steam impacts on the moving blades it imparts
      some of its kinetic energy to the moving blades.


      There are two basic steam turbine types,
      impulse turbines and reaction turbines, whose blades are designed
      control the speed, direction and pressure of the steam as is passes
      through the turbine.


The Steam Turbine


      • Impulse Turbines
      • The steam jets are directed at the
        turbine’s bucket shaped rotor blades where the pressure exerted by the
        jets causes the rotor to rotate and the velocity of the steam to reduce
        as it imparts its kinetic energy to the blades. The blades in turn
        change change the direction of flow of the steam however its pressure
        remains constant as it passes through the rotor blades since the cross
        section of the chamber between the blades is constant. Impulse turbines
        are therefore also known as constant pressure turbines.

        The next series of fixed blades reverses the direction of the steam before it passes to the second row of moving blades.


      • Reaction Turbines
      • The rotor blades of the reaction
        turbine are shaped more like aerofoils, arranged such that the cross
        section of the chambers formed between the fixed blades diminishes from
        the inlet side towards the exhaust side of the blades. The chambers
        between the rotor blades essentially form nozzles so that as the steam
        progresses through the chambers its velocity increases while at the same
        time its pressure decreases, just as in the nozzles formed by the fixed
        blades. Thus the pressure decreases in both the fixed and moving
        blades. As the steam emerges in a jet from between the rotor blades, it
        creates a reactive force on the blades which in turn creates the
        turning moment on the turbine rotor, just as in Hero’s steam engine.
        (Newton’s Third Law – For every action there is an equal and opposite


  • The Condenser
  • The exhaust steam from the low pressure
    turbine is condensed to water in the condenser which extracts the latent
    heat of vaporization from the steam. This causes the volume of the
    steam to go to zero, reducing the pressure dramatically to near vacuum
    conditions thus increasing the pressure drop across the turbine enabling
    the maximum amount of energy to be extracted from the steam. The
    condensate is then pumped back into the boiler as feed-water to be used

    It goes without saying that condenser
    systems need a constant, ample supply of cooling water and this is
    supplied in a separate circuit from the cooling tower which cools the
    condenser cooling water by direct contact with the air and evaporation
    of a portion of the cooling water in an open tower.

    Water vapour seen billowing from power plants is evaporating cooling water, not the working fluid.


    Back-Pressure Turbines, often used for electricity generation in process industries, do not use condensers. Also called Atmospheric or Non- Condensing Turbines, they
    do not waste the energy in the steam emerging from the turbine exhaust
    however, instead it is diverted for use in applications requiring large
    amounts of heat such as refineries, pulp and paper plants, desalination
    plants and district heating units. These industries may also use the
    available steam to power mechanical drives for pumps, fans and materials
    handling. The boiler and turbine must of course be oversized for the
    electrical load in order to compensate for the power diverted for other


  • Practical Machines
  • Steam turbines come in many configurations. Large machines are
    usually built with multiple stages to maximise the energy transfer from
    the steam.


multi-stage steam turbine generator


    To reduce axial forces on the turbine
    rotor bearings the steam may be fed into the turbine at the mid point
    along the shaft so that it flows in opposite directions towards each end
    of the shaft thus balancing the axial load.

    The output steam is fed through a cooling tower through which cooling water is passed to condense the steam back to water.


steam turbine


    Turbine power outputs of 1000MW or more are typical for electricity generating plants.


  • The Steam Turbine as a Heat Engine
  • Steam turbine systems are essentially
    heat engines for converting heat energy into mechanical energy by
    alternately vaporising and condensing a working fluid in a process in a
    closed system known as the Rankine cycle.
    This is a reversible thermodynamic cycle in which heat is applied to a
    working fluid in an evaporator, first to vaporise it, then to increase
    its temperature and pressure. The high temperature vapour is then fed
    through a heat engine, in this case a turbine, where it imparts its
    energy to the rotor blades causing the rotor to turn due to the
    expansion of the vapour as its pressure and temperature drops. The
    vapour leaving the turbine is then condensed and pumped back in liquid
    form as feed to the evaporator.
    In this case the working fluid is water
    and the vapour is steam but the principle applies to other working
    fluids such as ammonia which may be used in low temperature applications
    such as geothermal systems. The working fluid in a Rankine cycle thus follows a closed loop and is re-used constantly.
    The efficiency of a heat engine is determined
    only by the temperature difference of the working fluid between the
    input and output of the engine (Carnot’s Law).



    showed that the maximum efficiency available = 1 – Tc / Th where Th is the temperature in degrees Kelvin of the working fluid in its hottest state (after heat has been applied) and Tc is its temperature in its coldest state (after the heat has been removed).


    To maximise efficiencies, the temperature
    of the steam fed to the turbine can be as high as 900°C, while a
    condenser is used at the output of the turbine to reduce the temperature
    and pressure of the steam to as low a value as possible by converting
    it back to water. The condenser is an essential component necessary for
    maximising the efficiency of the steam engine by maximising the
    temperature difference of the working fluid in the machine.

    Using Carnot’s law, for a typical steam turbine system with an
    input steam temperature of 543°C (816K) and a temperature of the
    condensed water of 23°C (296K), the maximum theoretical efficiency can
    be calculated as follows:

    Carnot efficiency = (816 – 296)/816 = 64%

    But this does not take
    account of heat, friction and pressure losses in the system. A more
    realistic value for the efficiency of the steam turbine would be about

    Thus the heat engine is responsible for most of the system energy conversion losses.


    See also Gas Turbines and Heat Engines


  • Electromechanical Energy Transfer (Generator)
    The steam turbine drives a generator, to convert the mechanical energy into electrical energy. Typically this will be a rotating field synchronous machine. These machines are described more fully in the section on Generators.
    The energy conversion efficiency of these high capacity generators can be as high as 98% or 99% for a very large machine.
  • Note: This means that a 1000MW generator must dissipate 20 MW of waste heat and such generators require special cooling techniques.


Ancillary Systems

Apart from the basic steam raising and
electricity generating plant, there are several essential automatic
control and ancillary systems which are necessary to keep the plant
operating safely at its optimum capacity. These include:

  • Matching the power output to the demand. Current controls
  • Maintaining the system voltage and frequency
  • Keeping the plant components within their operating pressure, temperature and speed limits
  • Lubrication systems
  • Feeding the fuel to the combustion chamber and removing the ash
  • Pumps and fans for water and air flow
  • Pollution. control – Separating harmful products from the combustion exhaust emissions
  • Cooling the generator
  • Electricity transmission equipment. Transformers and high voltage switching
  • Overload protection, emergency shut down and load shedding