Electricity, Heat Engine, Superheated Dry Steam, Coal-Fired Power Plant, Geothermal Power Plant and Waste-to-Energy Plant

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 1st, 2012

Technology 101

Geothermal Power Plants and Waste-to-Energy Plants each produce less than Half of 1% of our Electricity

We produce the majority of our electricity with heat engines.  Where we boil water into steam to spin a turbine.  Or use the expanding gases of combustion to spin a turbine.  The primary heat engines we use are coal-fired power plants, natural gas-power plants and nuclear power plants.  The next big source of electricity generation is hydroelectric.  A renewable energy source.  In 2011 it produced less than 8% of our electricity.  These sources combined produce in excess of 95% of all electricity.  While renewable energy sources (other than hydroelectric) make up a very small percentage of the total.  Wind power comes in under 3%.  And solar comes in at less than 0.2% of the total.  So we are a very long way from abandoning coal, natural gas and nuclear power.

Two other renewable energy sources appear to hold promise.  Two heat engines.  One powered by geothermal energy in the earth.  The other by burning our garbage.  In a waste-to-energy plant.  These appear attractive.  Geothermal power appears to be as clean as it gets.  For this heat isn’t man-made.  It’s planet-made.  And it’s just there for the taking.  But the taking of it gets a little complicated.  As is burning our trash.  Not to mention the fact that few people want trash incinerators in their neighborhoods.  For these reasons they each provide a very small percentage of the total electric power we produce.  Both coming in at less than half of 1%.

So why steam?  Why is it that we make so much of our electrical power by boiling water?  Because of the different states of matter.  Matter can be a solid, liquid or a gas.  And generally passes from one state to another in that order.  Although there are exceptions.  Such as dry ice that skips the liquid phase.  It sublimates from a solid directly into a gas.  And goes from a gas to a solid by deposition.  Water, though, follows the general rule.  Ice melts into water at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (or 0 degrees Celsius).  Or water freezes into ice at the same temperature.  Water vaporizes into steam at 212 degrees Fahrenheit (or 100 degrees Celsius).  Or steam condenses into water at the same temperature.  These changes in the state of matter are easy to produce.  At temperatures that we can easily attain.  Water is readily available to vaporize into steam.  It’s safe and easy to handle.  Making it the liquid of choice in a heat engine.

Today’s Coal-Fired Power Plant pulverizes Coal into a Dust and Blows it into the Firebox

A given amount of water will increase about 1600 times in volume when converted to steam.  It’s this expansion that we put to work.  It’s what pushed pistons in steam engines.  It’s what drove steam locomotives.  And it’s what spins the turbines in our power plants.  The plumes of steam you see is not steam, though.  What you see is water droplets in the steam.  Steam itself is an invisible gas.  And the hotter and drier (no water) it is the better.  For water droplets in steam will pit and wear the blades on a steam turbine.  Which is why the firebox of a coal-fired plant reaches temperatures up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,650 degrees Celsius).  To superheat the steam.  And to use this heat elsewhere in the power plant such as preheating water entering the boiler.  So it takes less energy to vaporize it.

To get a fire that hot isn’t easy.  And you don’t get it by shoveling coal into the fire box.  Today’s coal-fired power plant pulverizes coal into a dust and blows it into the firebox.  Because small particles can burn easier and more completely than large chunks of coal.  As one fan blows in fuel another blows in air.  To help the fire burn hot.  The better and finer the fuel the better it burns.  The better the fuel burns the hotter the fire.  And the drier the steam it makes.  Which can spin a turbine with a minimum of wear.

In a geothermal power plant we pipe steam out of the ground to spin a turbine.  If it’s hot enough.  Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of geothermal wells that produce superheated dry steam.  Which limits how many of these plants we can build.  And the steam that the planet produces is not as clean as what man produces.  Steam out of the earth can contain a lot of contaminants.  Requiring additional equipment to process these contaminants out.  We can use cooler geothermal wells that produce wet steam but they require additional equipment to remove the water from the steam.  The earth may produce heat reliably but not water.  When we pipe this steam away the wells can run dry.  So these plants require condensers to condense the used steam back into water so we can pump it back to the well.  A typical plant may have several wells piped to a common plant.  Requiring a lot of piping both for steam and condensate.  You put all this together and a geothermal plant is an expensive plant.  And it is a plant that we can build in few places.  Which explains why geothermal power makes less than half of 1% of our electricity.

We generate approximately 87% of our Electricity from Coal, Natural Gas and Nuclear Power

So these are some the problems with geothermal.  Burning trash has even more problems.  The biggest problem is that trash is a terrible fuel.  We pulverize coal into a dust and blow into the firebox.  This allows a hot and uniform fire.  Trash on the other hand contains wet mattresses, wet bags of grass, car batteries, newspapers and everything else you’ve ever thrown away.  And if you ever lit a campfire or a BBQ you know some things burn better than other things.  And wet things just don’t burn at all.  So some of this fuel entering the furnace can act like throwing water on a hot fire.  Which makes it difficult to maintain a hot and uniform fire.  They load fuel on a long, sloping grate that enters the furnace.  Mechanical agitators shake the trash down this grate slowly.  As the trash approaches the fire it heats up and dries out as much as possible before entering the fire.  Still the fire burns unevenly.  They try to keep the temperature above 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (about 538 degrees Celsius) .  But they’re not always successful.

They can improve the quality of the fuel by processing it first.  Tearing open bags with machinery so people can hand pick through the trash.  They will remove things that won’t burn.  Then send what will burn to a shredder.  Chopping it up into smaller pieces.  This can help make for a more uniform burn.  But it adds a lot of cost.  So these plants tend to be expensive.  And nowhere as efficient as a coal-fired power plant (or nuclear power plant) in boiling water into superheated dry steam.  Also, raw trash tends to stink.  And no one really knows what’s in it when it burns.  Making people nervous about what comes out of their smoke stacks.  You add all of these things up and you see why less than half of 1% of our electricity comes from burning our trash.

This is why we generate approximately 87% of our electricity from coal, natural gas and nuclear power.  Coal and nuclear power can make some of the hottest and driest steam.  But making a hot fire or bringing a nuclear reactor on line takes time.  A lot of time.  So we use these as baseload power plants.  They generate the supply that meets the minimum demand.  Power that we use at all times.  Day or night.  Winter or summer.  They run 24/7 all year long.  Natural gas plants add to the baseload.  And handle peak demands over the baseload.  Because they don’t boil water they can come on line very quickly to pickup spikes in electrical demand.  Hydroelectric power shares this attribute, too.  As long as there is enough water in the reservoir to bring another generator on line.  The other 5% (wind, solar, geothermal, trash incinerators, etc.) is more of a novelty than serious power generation.



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