The evolution of electricity generation technologies

The earliest power stations used reciprocating steam engines to generate power. These engines were not ideal for the purpose because they could not easily develop the high rotational speeds needed to drive a generator effectively. This difficulty was eventually overcome with the invention of the steam turbine by Sir Charles Parsons in 1884. Fuel for these plants was usually coal, used to raise steam in a boiler.

Hydropower also entered the power generation mix at an early stage in the development of the industry. Much of the key work on different turbine types used to capture power from flowing water was carried out in the second half of the nineteenth century.

By the beginning of the twentieth century both the spark-ignition engine and the diesel engine had been developed. These too could be used for making electricity. And before World War II work also began on the use of wind turbines as a way of generating power. But until the beginning of the 1950s, steam turbine power stations burning coal, and sometimes oil or gas, together with hydropower stations, provided the bulk of the global power generation capacity.

In the 1950s the age of nuclear power was born. Once the principles were established, construction of nuclear power stations accelerated. Here, it was widely believed, was a modern source of energy for the modern age; it was cheap, clean and technically exciting.

Nuclear power continued to expand rapidly in the USA up to the late 1970s. In other parts of the world, uptake was less rapid but Great Britain, France and Germany invested heavily. In the Far East, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea worked more slowly. Russia developed its own plants and India began a nuclear programme, as did China.

From the end of the 1970s the once lustrous nuclear industry began to tarnish. Since then its progress has slowed dramatically, particularly in the west. In Asia, however, the dream remains alive.

At the beginning of the same decade, in 1973 to be precise, the Arab- Israeli war caused a major upheaval in world oil prices. These rose dramatically. By then oil had also become a major fuel for power stations. Countries that were burning it extensively began to seek new ways of generating electricity and interest in renewable energy sources began to take off.

The stimulus of rising oil prices led to the investigation of a wide variety of different alternative energy technologies such as wave power, hot-rock geothermal power and the use of ethanol derived from crops instead of petrol or oil. However the main winners were solar power and wind power.

Development took a long time but by the end of the century both solar and wind technologies had reached the stage where they were both technically and economically viable. There was considerable reason to hope that both would be able to contribute significantly to the electricity generation mix in the twenty-first century.

One further legacy of the early 1970s that began to be felt in the electricity industry during the 1980s was a widespread concern for the environment. This forced the industry to implement wide-ranging measures to reduce environmental emissions from fossil-fuel-fired power plants. Other power generation technologies such as hydropower were affected too.

The gas turbine began to make a major impact during the 1980s as an engine for power stations. The machine was perfected during and after World War II as an aviation power unit but soon transferred to the power industry for use in power plants supplying peak demand.

During the 1980s the first large base-load power stations using both gas turbines and steam turbines, in a configuration known as the combined cycle plant, were built. This configuration has become the main source of new base-load generating capacity in many countries where natural gas is readily available.

The first years of the twenty-first century have seen renewed emphasis on new and renewable sources of electricity. Fuel cells, a technically advanced but expensive source of electricity, are approaching commercial viability. There is renewed interest in deriving energy from oceans, from waves and currents, and from the heat in tropical seas. Offshore wind farms have started to multiply around the shores of Europe.

The story of the twenty-first century is likely to be the contest between these new technologies and the old combustion technologies for dominance within the power generation industry. And while they battle for supremacy there remains one technology, nuclear fusion, which has yet to prove itself but just might sweep the board.

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