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Steam power and Electricity

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Electricity -Steam -Turbine

With climate change affecting more and more people, the cold winter evenings drawing in and a phased replacement of the internal combustion engine there's an awful lot of talk about new ways of generating electricity.

But where is all this electricity currently being generated and watt* needs to change? (*couldn’t resist that one!)

The role of steam power in generating electricity

It might surprise a lot of people (but I suspect not regular readers of our blog!) that a large proportion of our electricity supply is actually generated using steam power!

This Scientific American article puts the figure at around 80% - although that was in 2015.

This method of generating electricity it is generally credited to the handsomely named Charles Algernon Parsons, who developed a steam turbine engine when he was working for a shipping engineering firm in the 1880s.

Clever old Algernon came up with the bright idea of connecting one of these turbines to a dynamo (replacing other early, less effective ways of turning the dynamo) which resulted in a generator capable of producing up to 7.5 kW - then it was just down to what choice of fuel was used to heat water to create the steam.

What fuels UK electricity generators?

An ever-changing variety of methods are used to generate electricity in the UK - in fact an incredibly detailed picture of how much electricity is being generated by what can be seen by visiting the Grid Watch website where there's a fantastic page full of dials showing where are all our electricity comes from in alarming detail!

Grid Watch Screen Shot

Another incredibly detailed source of information about the U.K.'s Energy is the 2018 UK energy in brief report produced by the Department of business, energy & industrial strategy.

The report shows that, in general, greenhouse emissions are heading in the right direction, being 43% lower than in 1990.  The report largely attributes the decrease to a change in the fuel mix for electricity generation from less coal and gas to increased use of renewables.

Although, as the graph above below shows, even in 2017 gas is probably the most commonly used fuel, and as recently as 2006 coal use reached a 10 year high when a rise in gas prices coincided with the reduction in nuclear station availability.

Electricity -Fuel Type

Alternatives to steam for electricity generation

As the graph above shows there are other ways of creating electricity rather than just using a turbine spun by steam power.

Possibly the most obvious method of generation with no moving parts is solar generation using silicon-based cells - but as this article states, because of their construction they are expensive and don't work well in many situations.

As a result,  scientists are studying other materials, most notably something called halide perovskites, which they describe as “soft” allowing Solar cells to be produced on a roll, like a newspaper printing!

Another exciting method of generating electricity (which I heard about a few years ago, but maybe it’ll start actually happening) is a paving slab that generates electricity with footfall - this kind of solution which capitalises on things we're already doing such as walking on pavements, opening doors, brushing teeth(?).

It seems like a really sensible and elegant way of contributing to the solution of future electricity generation (as well as using trusty old steam power!)

Is there anything we should’ve mentioned?

Do you have any thoughts, comments or views on climate change and energy generation?

Is there anything you think we should have mentioned?

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Photo credit: Siemens Pressebild, - Photo taken from [1] with the friendly permission of Siemens Germany by Christian Kuhna, E-Mail: christian.kuhna/klammeraff/siemens/dot/com

By Alastair Baker at 14 Nov 2019, 00:00 AM