An Overview of the Current Power Plant Types and How They Work
Most of us are now just as aware of the potential dangers inherent in generating electricity as we are of its benefits. However, it is now equally clear that those seers often dismissed as alarmists who prophesied its flagrant use would precipitate an environmental crisis were deadly serious. Although efforts to develop more sustainable and safer technologies are underway, we have no viable alternatives to those operating currently. Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail:
- Hydroelectric Power: Of all the options available, hydroelectric schemes are one of the oldest, cleanest and most sustainable methods for generating electric current. Water stored in a dam is directed through channels where it acts to drive turbines. Each turbine is connected to a generator where the rotating action of a magnetic field induces the required current. No emissions are produced, and water in the dam is constantly replenished.
- The Thermal Power Plant: These installations are widely considered to be the dirtiest and most dangerous means to generate electrical power. Nevertheless, despite their dependence on fossil fuels, they are also the most numerous, accounting for around 80 per cent of the world’s energy needs. These plants also utilise rotational energy to drive an array of generators. However, their turbines are driven by pressurised steam formed when heating water in a boiler by burning coal, oil or gas. Of these three fuels, coal represents the most significant environmental threat. In addition to vast quantities of CO2, methane and CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) which are notorious greenhouse gases, burning coal generates nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides and soot particles. While contributing to catastrophic climate change, these chemicals also endanger the health of workers and those living near the plant.
- Wind Power: Similar to the windmills that once drove grindstones to mill flour from grain, these massive wind-driven turbines are an alternative method to power a generator that requires no heat and produces no harmful emissions. On the downside, recent evidence suggests their low-frequency humming may disrupt birdlife and even be responsible for mass whale beachings.
- Solar Energy: This wholly static technology utilises solar radiation to generate heat or electricity. Radiant heat from the sun can heat water in a system of pipes to supply a household or produce electricity from semiconducting materials from photons. The DC generated can be converted to AC and used directly. Alternatively, it can be stored in batteries or sold to a participating service provider. The main drawbacks are the high purchase price and the environmental impact of their manufacture and subsequent disposal.
- Geothermal Power: This technology involves tapping into the heat via shafts drilled deep underground, after which it is used to generate steam to drive turbines like the majority of systems. It is not practical in many regions, and there have been fears that the practice might cause seismic anomalies.
- The Nuclear Fission Reactor: As yet, scientists have failed to find a way to produce electricity directly from atoms. Consequently, like with the thermal power plants that have served us for around 150 years, the only practical application for a nuclear fission reaction is to provide the heat to boil water and generate steam to drive a turbine.
- That said, the peaceful use of atomic energy appears destined to be the only viable option for producing clean energy safely and in sufficient quantities for the foreseeable future. Recently, a fusion reaction succeeded in releasing more power than it consumed, but the journey from proof of concept to a working fission reactor is expected to be a lengthy one. In the meantime, concerned nations are investing heavily in new fusion reactors.