Analyzing Thermal Power Generation Efficiency

Figure 1 - Thermal Power Plant Layout
Figure 1 – Thermal Power Plant Layout

Steam turbine power generating plants, also known as Thermal Power stations, are the most conventional type of electricity production today. Most of today’s electricity power is generated though this technology. Naturally, as implied by its name, a thermal power station uses steam power as its prime mover to convert energy in coal, or other fossil fuel, by heating water to steam and utilizing Rankine cycle principles to generate heat and electricity.

The basic theory of thermal power generation is pretty straight forward: in a simple thermodynamic cycle, saturated liquid water is heated to steam. The working fluid will then pass through a steam turbine, where its energy is converted to mechanical work to run the generator and produce the electricity. Then fluid will be condensed to be recycled back in the heater. Just as simple as that, electricity power is generated from the cycle based on Rankine cycle principle.

The utilization of thermal power station comes with the advantage of economical initial and generation cost, easy maintenance and simple cycle operation in practice. That being said, there are also couple major drawbacks associated to the technology, primarily, low overall efficiency –due to the nature of Rankine cycle’s characteristic of thermal efficiency and environmental issues.

There are many scientific reasoning behind thermal power generation’s low efficiency. It is important to know the reasons why to engage in a better technology. These are the primary reasons:

  • During the combustion of carbon, effective conversion more or less is found to be 90%, this happen primarily due to limitation of heat transfer where some heat are lost into the atmosphere. Coal also contains moisture that vaporizes and take the latent heat from combustions.
  • The thermodynamic step, working on Rankine cycle principle, is where 50% (or more) efficiency is consumed. When the steam is condensed for re-use, latent heat of condensation is lost in the cooling water, which decreases the energy input by a very significant magnitude. Losses can also happen in the blades and other components. The Rankine cycle efficiency is determined by the maximum temperature of steam that can be transferred through the turbine, which means the efficiency is also constrained by the temperature associated with the cycle. Two other main factors that affect the thermal efficiency of power plants are the pressure of steam entering the turbine and the pressure in the condenser. That being said, a cycle with supercritical pressure and high temperature usually results to a higher efficiency.
  • During a conversion of mechanical to electrical, some efficiency loss happens in the generator and transformer. A small percentage of energy generated will then be used for internal consumption.

Knowing the causes of low efficiency leads us to the next question: What are the steps to optimize our thermal power plant efficiency?

  • Since thermal efficiency depends on temperature and pressure, it can be improved by using high pressure and temperature steam, though obviously it will be limited based on the boundary conditions of the operating system. A lower pressure can also be set in the condenser.
  • Improvement could also be implemented by the application of reheating steam technology between turbine stages.
  • Waste heat recovery optimization, capture excess heat for reuse, and install insulation to reduce any losses.
  • Upgrading major systems/components of thermodynamic cycles and renewing materials to reduce natural losses in efficiency due to age.
  • Improve efficiency monitoring system to enable instant detection of losses as well as analyzing efficiency based on real data.

These are just some ways that could be utilized to optimize power generation efficiency, indeed each of the steps come with their own specific obstacles of implementation, but there are infinite ways that can be explored to advance the technology.

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