Steam Power Plant: A Complete Overview of How It Works and Why It Matter - Engineer Simple

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Steam Power Plant: A Complete Overview of How It Works and Why It Matter

Steam Power Plant

Steam Power Plant

Steam power plants are power stations that generate electricity by using steam turbines. They are one of the most common sources of electricity in the world, and they can use various types of fuels, such as coal, oil, gas, etc. Steam power plants work by converting the heat energy of the fuel into steam at high pressure and temperature, and then using the steam to drive a turbine that spins a generator. The steam is then condensed back into water and recycled to the boiler. Steam power plants have many components, such as boiler, superheater, turbine, generator, condenser, economizer, feed pump, cooling tower, chimney, etc. Each component has a specific function and role in the power generation process. Steam power plants are also known as thermal power plants or Rankine cycle plants. They have many advantages, such as high efficiency, reliability, and low emissions. However, they also have some disadvantages, such as high capital cost, water consumption, and environmental impact. In this article, we will discuss the definition, components, layout, working principle, uses, advantages and disadvantages of steam power plants in detail.

Power Station

Bulk electric power is produced by special plants known as generating stations or power plants.

A generating station essentially employs a prime mover coupled to an alternator for the production of electric power. The prime mover (e.g., steam turbine, water turbine etc.) converts energy from some other form into mechanical energy. The alternator converts mechanical energy of the prime mover into electrical energy. The electrical energy produced by the generating station is transmitted and distributed with the help of conductors to various consumers. It may be emphasised here that apart from prime mover-alternator combination, a modern generating station employs several auxiliary equipment and instruments to ensure cheap, reliable, and continuous service.

Classification of Generating Stations

Depending upon the form of energy converted into electrical energy, the generating stations are classified as under:

(i) Steam power stations

(ii) Hydroelectric power stations

(iii) Diesel power stations

(iv) Nuclear power stations

(i) Steam Power Station (Thermal Station)

A generating station which converts heat energy of coal combustion into electrical energy is known as a steam power station.

A steam power plant basically works on the Rankine cycle. Steam is produced in the boiler by utilising the heat of coal combustion. The steam is then expanded in the prime mover (i.e., steam turbine) and is condensed in a condenser to be fed into the boiler again. The steam turbine drives the alternator which converts mechanical energy of the turbine into electrical energy. This type of power station is suitable where coal and water are available in abundance and a large amount of electric power is to be generated.


(i) The fuel (i.e., coal) used is quite cheap.
(ii) Less initial cost as compared to other generating stations.
(iii) It can be install at any place irrespective of the existence of coal. The coal can be transported to the site of the plant by rail or road.
(iv) It requires less space as compared to the hydroelectric power station.
(v) The cost of generation is lesser than that of the diesel power station.


(i) It pollutes the atmosphere due to the production of large amount of smoke and fumes.
(ii) It is costlier in running cost as compare to hydroelectric plant.

Schematic Arrangement of Steam Power Station

Although steam power station simply involves the conversion of heat of coal combustion into electrical energy, yet it embraces many arrangements for proper working and efficiency. The schematic arrangement of a modern steam power station is shown in Fig-1.

Schematic Arrangement of Steam Power Station

The whole arrangement can be divided into the following stages for the sake of simplicity :

  1. Coal and ash handling arrangement
  2. Steam generating plant
  3. Steam turbine
  4. Alternator
  5. Feed water
  6. Cooling arrangement

  1. Coal and ash handling plant:

The coal is transported to the power station by road or rail and is stored in the coal storage plant. Storage of coal is primarily a matter of protection against coal strikes, failure of the transportation system, and general coal shortages.

From the coal storage plant, coal is delivered to the coal handling plant where it is pulverised (i.e., crushed into small pieces) in order to increase its surface exposure, thus promoting rapid combustion without using large quantity of excess air. The pulverized coal is fed to the boiler by belt conveyors.

The coal is burnt in the boiler and the ash produced after the complete combustion of coal is removed to the ash handling plant and then delivered to the ash storage plant for disposal. The removal of the ash from the boiler furnace is necessary for proper burning of coal.

It is worthwhile to give a passing reference to the amount of coal burnt and ash produced in a modern thermal power station. A 100 MW station operating at 50% load factor may burn about 20,000 tons of coal per month and ash produced may be to the tune of 10% to 15% of coal-fired i.e., 2,000 to 3,000 tons. In fact, in a thermal station, about 50% to 60% of the total operating cost consists of fuel purchasing and its handling.

  1. Steam generating plant: The steam generating plant consists of a boiler for the production of steam and other auxiliary equipment for the utilization of flue gases.
(i) Boiler
The heat of combustion of coal in the boiler is utilised to convert water into steam at high temperature and pressure. The flue gases from the boiler make their journey through superheater, economiser, air pre-heater and are finally exhausted to atmosphere through the chimney.
(ii) Superheater
The steam produced in the boiler is wet and is passed through a superheater where it is dried and superheated (i.e., steam temperature increased above that of boiling point of water) by the flue gases on their way to chimney. Superheating provides two principal benefits. Firstly, the overall efficiency is increased. Secondly, too much condensation in the last stages of turbine (which would cause blade corrosion) is avoided. The superheated steam from the superheater is fed to steam turbine through the main valve.

(iii) Economiser
An economiser is essentially a feed water heater and derives heat from the flue gases for this purpose. The feed water is fed to the economiser before supplying to the boiler. The economiser extracts a part of heat of flue gases to increase the feed water temperature.
(iv) Air preheater
An air preheater increases the temperature of the air supplied for coal burning by deriving heat from flue gases. Air is drawn from the atmosphere by a forced draught fan and is passed through air preheater before supplying to the boiler furnace. The air preheater extracts heat from flue gases and increases the temperature of air used for coal combustion. The principal benefits of preheating the air are: increased thermal efficiency and increased steam capacity per square metre of boiler surface.
  1. Steam turbine
The dry and superheated steam from the superheater is fed to the steam turbine through main valve. The heat energy of steam when passing over the blades of turbine is converted into mechanical energy. After giving heat energy to the turbine, the steam is exhausted to the condenser which condenses the exhausted steam by means of cold water circulation.
  1. Alternator
The steam turbine is coupled to an alternator. The alternator converts mechanical energy of turbine into electrical energy. The electrical output from the alternator is delivered to the bus bars through transformer, circuit breakers and isolators.

5. Feedwater

The condensate from the condenser is use as feed water to the boiler. Some water may be loss in the cycle which is suitably made up from external source. The feed water on its way to the boiler is heat by water heaters and economiser. This helps in raising the overall efficiency of the plant.

6. Cooling arrangement

In order to improve the efficiency of the plant, the steam exhausted from the turbine is condens by means of a condenser. Water is draw from a natural source of supply such as a river, canal or lake and is circulate through the condenser. The circulating water takes up the heat of the exhaust steam and itself becomes hot. This hot water coming out from the condenser is discharge at a suitable location down the river. In case the availability of water from the source of supply is not assured throughout the year, cooling towers are use. During the scarcity of water in the river, hot water from the condenser is pass on to the cooling towers where it is cool. The cold water from the cooling tower is reuse in the condenser.

Choice of Site for Steam Power Stations

In order to achieve overall economy, the following points should be considered while selecting a site for a steam power station :

(i) Supply of fuel:

The steam power station should be located near the coal mines so that transportation cost of fuel is minimum. However, if such a plant is to be installed at a place be achieved by condensing the steam at the turbine exhaust. where coal is not available, then care should be taken that adequate facilities exist for the transportation of coal.
Note: Efficiency of the plant is increased by reducing turbine exhaust pressure. Low pressure at the exhaust can be achieved by condensing the steam at the turbine exhaust.

(ii) Availability of water:

As huge amount of water is required for the condenser, therefore, such a plant should be located at the bank of a river or near a canal to ensure the continuous supply of water.

(iii) Transportation facilities:

A modern steam power station often requires the transportation of material and machinery. Therefore, adequate transportation facilities must exist i.e., the plant should be well connected to other parts of the country by rail, road. etc.

(iv) Cost and type of land:

The steam power station should be located at a place where land is cheap and further extension, if necessary, is possible. Moreover, the bearing capacity of the ground should be adequate so that heavy equipment could be installed.

(v) Nearness to load centers:

In order to reduce the transmission cost, the plant should be located near the center of the load. This is particularly important if d.c. the supply system is adopt. However, if a.c. the supply system is adopt, this factor becomes relatively less important. It is because of a.c. power can be transmit at high voltages with consequently reduce transmission costs. Therefore, it is possible to install the plant away from the load centers, provide other conditions are favorable.

(vi) Distance from the populated area:

As a huge amount of coal is burn in a steam power station, therefore, smoke and fumes pollute the surrounding area. This necessitates that the plant should be located at a considerable distance from the populated areas.

My point of view

It is clear that all the above factors cannot be favorable at one place. However, keeping in view the fact that nowadays the supply system is a.c. and more importance is being give to generation than transmission, a site away from the towns may be select. In particular, a site by riverside where sufficient water is available, no pollution of the atmosphere occurs and fuel can be transport economically, may perhaps be an ideal choice.

Efficiency of Steam Power Station

The overall efficiency of a steam power station is quite low (about 29%) due mainly to two reasons. Firstly, a huge amount of heat is loss in the condenser and secondly, heat losses occur at various stages of the plant. The heat loss in the condenser cannot be avoid. It is because heat energy cannot be convert into mechanical energy without temperature difference. The greater the temperature difference, the greater is the heat energy convert* into mechanical energy. This necessitates keeping the steam in the condenser at the lowest temperature. But we know that the greater the temperature difference, the greater is the amount of heat loss. This explains the low efficiency of such plants.

(i) Thermal efficiency:

The ratio of heat equivalent of mechanical energy transmit to the turbine shaft to the heat of combustion of coal is know as the thermal efficiency of the steam power station.
Thermal efficiency,
Thermal efficiency

The thermal efficiency of a modern steam power station is about 30%. It means that if 100 calories of heat is supply by coal combustion, then mechanical energy equivalent of 30 calories will be available at the turbine shaft and rest is loss. It may be important to note that more than 50% of the total heat of combustion is loss in the condenser. The other heat losses occur in flue gases, radiation, ash, etc.

(ii) Overall efficiency:

The ratio of heat equivalent of electrical output to the heat of combustion of coal is know as the overall efficiency of steam power station i.e.

Overall efficiency

The overall efficiency of a steam power station is about 29%. It may be seen that overall efficiency is less than the thermal efficiency. This is expect since some losses (about 1%) occur in the alternator. The following relation exists among the various efficiencies.

Overall efficiency = Thermal efficiency×Electrical efficiency

Equipment of Steam Power Station:

A modern steam power station is highly complex and has numerous equipment and auxiliaries. However, the most important constituents of a steam power station are:
  1. Steam generating equipment

  2. Condenser

  3. Prime mover

  4. Water treatment plant

  5. Electrical equipment.

  1. Steam generating equipment:

This is an important part of steam power station. It is concerned with the generation of superheated steam and includes such items as boiler, boiler furnace, superheater, economiser, air pre-heater and other heat reclaiming devices.

(i) Boiler: A boiler is close vessel in which water is convert into steam by utilising the heat of coal combustion. Steam boilers are broadly classify into the following two types :

(a) Water tube boilers, (b) Fire tube boilers

In a water tube boiler, water flows through the tubes and the hot gases of combustion flow over these tubes. On the other hand, in a fire tube boiler, the hot products of combustion pass through the tubes surrounded by water. Water tube boilers have a number of advantages over fire tube boilers viz., require less space, smaller size of tubes and drum, high working pressure due to small drum, less liable to explosion etc. Therefore, the use of water tube boilers has become universal in large capacity steam power stations.

(ii) Boiler furnace:

A boiler furnace is a chamber in which fuel is burn to liberate the heat energy. In addition, it provides support and enclosure for the combustion equipment i.e., burners. The boiler furnace walls are make of refractory materials such as fire clay, silica, kaolin etc. These materials have the property to resist change of shape, weight or physical properties at high temperatures. There are following three types of construction of furnace walls :

(a) Plain refractory walls

(b) Hollow refractory walls with an arrangement for air cooling

(c) Water walls.

The plain refractory walls are suitable for small plants where the furnace temperature may not be high. However, in large plants, the furnace temperature is quite high* and consequently, the refractory material may get damaged. In such cases, refractory walls are make hollow and air is circulate through hollow space to keep the temperature of the furnace walls low. The recent development is to use water walls. These consist of plain tubes arrange side by side and on the inner face of the refractory walls. The tubes are connect to the upper and lower headers of the boiler. The boiler water is make to circulate through these tubes. The water walls absorb the radiant heat in the furnace which would otherwise heat up the furnace walls steam power plants.

(iii) Superheater: A superheater is a device that superheats the steam i.e., it raises the temperature of steam above the boiling point of water. This increases the overall efficiency of the plant. A superheater consists of a group of tubes made of special alloy steels such as a chromium-molybdenum steam power plant.

These tubes are heated by the heat of flue gases during their journey from the furnace to the chimney.

Note: The size of the furnace has to be limit due to space, cost, and other considerations.

This means that the furnace of a large plant should develop more kilocalories per square meter of the furnace which implies high furnace temperature.

The steam produced in the boiler is lead through the superheater where it is superheated by the heat of flue gases. Superheaters are mainly classify into two types according to the system of heat transfer from flue gases to steam via steam power plant.

(a) Radiant superheater, (b) Convection superheater

(a) Radiant superheater
The radiant superheater is place in the furnace between the water walls and receives heat from the burning fuel through the radiation process. It has two main disadvantages. Firstly, due to high furnace temperature, it may get overheated and, therefore, requires careful design. Secondly, the temperature of superheater falls with an increase in steam output. Due to these limitations, the radiant superheater is not finding favour these days.

(b) Convection superheater
On the other hand, a convection superheater is place in the boiler tube bank and receives heat from flue gases entirely through the convection process. It has the advantage that temperature of superheater increases with the increase in steam output. For this reason, this type of superheater is commonly use these days steam power plant.

(iv) Economiser:

It is a device that heats the feed water on its way to the boiler by deriving heat from the flue gases. This results in raising boiler efficiency, saving in fuel and reduced stresses in the boiler due to higher temperature of feed water. An economiser consists of a large number of closely spaced parallel steel tubes connected by headers of drums. The feed water flows through these tubes and the flue gases flow outside. A part of the heat of flue gases is transferred to feed water, thus raising the temperature of the latter steam power plant.

(v) Air Pre-heater:

Superheaters and economizers generally cannot fully extract the heat from flue gases. Therefore, pre-heaters are employ which recover some of the heat in the escaping gases. The function of an air pre-heater is to extract heat from the flue gases and give it to the air being supply to furnace for coal combustion. This raises the furnace temperature and increases the thermal efficiency of the plant. Depending upon the method of transfer of heat from flue gases to air, air pre-heaters are divide into the following two classes :

(a) Recuperative type, (b) Regenerative type

The recuperative type air-heater consists of a group of steel tubes. The flue gases are pass through the tubes while the air flows externally to the tubes. Thus heat of flue gases is transfer to air. The regenerative type air pre-heater consists of slowly moving drum made of corrugated metal plates. The flue gases flow continuously on one side of the drum and air on the other side. This action permits the transference of heat of flue gases to the air being supply to the furnace for coal combustion steam power plant.


A condenser is a device which condenses the steam at the exhaust of turbine. It serves two important functions. Firstly, it creates a very low *pressure at the exhaust of turbine, thus permitting expansion of the steam in the prime mover to a very low pressure. This helps in converting heat energy of steam into mechanical energy in the prime mover. Secondly, the condensed steam can be use as feed water to the boiler.
There are two types of condensers, namely:

(i) Jet condenser (ii) Surface condenser

In a jet condenser, cooling water and exhaust steam are mix together. Therefore, the temperature of cooling water and condensate is the same when leaving the condenser.

The advantages of this type of condenser are :

Low initial cost, less floor area require, less cooling water required and low maintenance charges. However, its disadvantages are: condensate is waste and high power is require for pumping water.

In a surface condenser, there is no direct contact between cooling water and exhaust steam. It consists of a bank of horizontal tubes enclosed in a cast-iron shell.

The cooling water flows through the tubes and exhausted steam over the surface of the tubes. The steam gives up its heat to water and is itself condense. Advantages of this type of condenser are: condensate can be use as feed water, less pumping power require and creation of better vacuum at the turbine exhaust. However, the disadvantages of this type of condenser are: high initial cost requires large floor area and high maintenance charges steam power plant.
Note: By liquidating steam at the exhaust of turbine, a region of emptiness is create. This results in a very low pressure at the exhaust of turbine.

3.Prime movers:

The prime mover converts steam energy into mechanical energy. There are two types of steam prime movers viz., steam engines and steam turbines. A steam turbine has several advantages over a steam engine as a prime mover viz., high efficiency, simple construction, higher speed, less floor area requirement and low maintenance cost. Therefore, all modern steam power stations employ steam turbines as prime movers.

Steam turbines are generally classified into two types according to the action of steam on moving blades viz.

(i) Impulse turbines, (ii) Reactions turbines

In an impulse turbine, the steam expands completely in the stationary nozzles (or fixed blades), the pressure over the moving blades remaining constant. In doing so, the steam attains a high velocity and impinges against the moving blades. This results in the impulsive force on the moving blades which sets the rotor rotating. In a reaction turbine, the steam is partially expand in the stationary nozzles, the remaining expansion takes place during its flow over the moving blades. The result is that the momentum of the steam causes a reaction force on the moving blades which sets the rotor in motion steam power plant.

4.Water treatment plant:

Boilers require clean and soft water for longer life and better efficiency. However, the source of boiler feed water is generally a river or lake which may contain suspended and dissolved impurities, dissolved gases etc. Therefore, it is very important that water is first purify and soften by chemical treatment and then deliver to the boiler steam power plant.

The water from the source of supply is store in storage tanks. The suspend impurities are remove through sedimentation, coagulation and filtration. Dissolved gases are remove by aeration and degasification.

The water is then ‘soften’ by removing temporary and permanent hardness through different chemical processes. The pure and soft water thus available is fed to the boiler for steam generation.
  1. Electrical equipment:

A modern power station contains numerous electrical equipment.
However, the most important items are :

(i) Alternators:

Each alternator is couple to a steam turbine and converts the mechanical energy of the turbine into electrical energy. The alternator may be hydrogen or air-cooled. The necessary excitation is provide by means of main and pilot exciters directly coupled to the alternator shaft steam power plant.

(ii) Transformers:

A generating station has different types of transformers, viz.,
(a) main step-up transformers that step-up the generation voltage for transmission of power.
(b) station transformers which are use for general service (e.g., lighting) in the power station.
(c) auxiliary transformers that supply to individual unit-auxiliaries steam power plant.

(iii) Switchgear:

It houses such equipment which locates the fault on the system and isolate the faulty part from the healthy section. It contains circuit breakers, relays, switches and other control devices steam power plant.


*Principles of Power Systems (V.K Mehta)
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