A power plant is an industrial facility for the generation of electric power.

Power plant is also used to refer to the engine in ships, aircraft and other large vehicles. Some prefer to use the term energy center because it more accurately describes what the plants do, which is the conversion of other forms of energy, like chemical energy, gravitational potential energy or heat energy into electrical energy. However, power plant is the most common term in the U.S, while elsewhere power station and power plant are both widely used, power station prevailing in many Commonwealth countries and especially in the United Kingdom.

At the center of nearly all power plants is a generator, a rotating machine that converts mechanical energy into electrical energy by creating relative motion between a magnetic field and a conductor. The energy source harnessed to turn the generator varies widely. It depends chiefly on which fuels are easily available and on the types of technology that the power company has access to.

Thermal Power Plant

In thermal power plants, mechanical power is produced by a heat engine that transforms thermal energy, often from combustion of a fuel, into rotational energy. Most thermal power plants produce steam, and these are sometimes called steam power stations. Not all thermal energy can be transformed into mechanical power, according to the second law of thermodynamics. Therefore, there is always heat lost to the environment. If this loss is employed as useful heat, for industrial processes or district heating, the power plant is referred to as a cogeneration power plant or CHP (combined heat-and-power) plant. In countries where district heating is common, there are dedicated heat plants called heat-only boiler stations. An important class of power plants in the Middle East uses by-product heat for the desalination of water.

The efficiency of a steam turbine is limited by the maximum temperature of the steam produced and is not directly a function of the fuel used. For the same steam conditions, coal, nuclear and gas power plants all have the same theoretical efficiency. Overall, if a system is on constantly (base load) it will be more efficient than one that is used intermittently(peak load).

Besides use of reject heat for process or district heating, one way to improve overall efficiency of a power plant is to combine two different thrmodynamic cycles. Most commonly, exhaust gases from a gas turbine are used to generate steam for a boiler and steam turbine. The combination of a "top" cycle and a "bottom" cycle produces higher overall efficiency than either cycle can attain alone.

Classification of Power Plant
Thermal power plants are classified by the type of fuel and the type of prime mover installed.

Thermal Power Plant By Fuel
  • Nuclear power plants use a nuclear reactor's heat to operate a steam turbine generator. About 20% of electric generation in the USA is produced by nuclear power plants.
  • Fossil fuelled power plants may also use a steam turbine generator or in the case of natural gas fired plants may use a combustion turbine. A coal-fired power station produces electricity by burning coal to generate steam, and has the side-effect of producing a large amount of carbon dioxide, which is released from burning coal and contributes to global warming. About 50% of electric generation in the USA is produced by coal fired power plants
  • Geothermal power plants use steam extracted from hot underground rocks.
  • Renewable energy plants or
  • Biomass Fuelled Power Plants may be fuelled by waste from sugar cane, municipal solid waste, landfill methane, or other forms of biomass.
  • In integrated steel mills, blast furnace exhaust gas is a low-cost, although low-energy-density, fuel.
  • Waste to energy plants, heat from industrial processes is occasionally concentrated enough to use for power generation, usually in a steam boiler and turbine.
  • Solar thermal electric plants use sunlight to boil water, which turns the generator.

Thermal Power Plant By prime mover
  • Steam turbine plants use the dynamic pressure generated by expanding steam to turn the blades of a turbine. Almost all large non-hydro plants use this system. About 80% of all electric power produced in the world is by use of steam turbines.
  • Gas turbine plants use the dynamic pressure from flowing gases (air and combustion products) to directly operate the turbine. Natural-gas fuelled (and oil fueled) combustion turbine plants can start rapidly and so are used to supply "peak" energy during periods of high demand, though at higher cost than base-loaded plants. These may be comparatively small units, and sometimes completely unmanned, being remotely operated. This type was pioneered by the UK, Princetown being the world's first, commissioned in 1959.
  • Combined cycle plants have both a gas turbine fired by natural gas, and a steam boiler and steam turbine which use the hot exhaust gas from the gas turbine to produce electricity. This greatly increases the overall efficiency of the plant, and many new baseload power plants are combined cycle plants fired by natural gas.
  • Internal combustion Reciprocating engines are used to provide power for isolated communities and are frequently used for small cogeneration plants. Hospitals, office buildings, industrial plants, and other critical facilities also use them to provide backup power in case of a power outage. These are usually fuelled by diesel oil, heavy oil, natural gas and landfill gas.
  • Microturbines, Stirling engine and internal combustion reciprocating engines are low-cost solutions for using opportunity fuels, such as landfill gas, digester gas from water treatment plants and waste gas from oil production.
Cooling towers
Cooling towers evaporating water at Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station, United Kingdom.

All thermal power plants produce waste heat energy as a byproduct of the useful electrical energy produced. The amount of waste heat energy equals or exceeds the amount of electrical energy produced. Gas-fired power plants can achieve 50% conversion efficiency while coal and oil plants achieve around 30-49%. The waste heat produces a temperature rise in the atmosphere which is small compared to that of greenhouse-gas emissions from the same power plant. Natural draft wet cooling towers at nuclear power plants and at some large fossil fuel fired power plants use large hyperbolic chimney-like structures (as seen in the image at the left) that release the waste heat to the ambient atmosphere by the evaporation of water (lower left image). However, the mechanical induced-draft or forced-draft wet cooling towers (as seen in the image to the right) in many large thermal power plants, nuclear power plants, fossil fired power plants, petroleum refineries, petrochemical plants, geothermal, biomass and waste to energy plants use fans to provide air movement upward through downcoming water and are not hyperbolic chimney-like structures. The induced or forced-draft cooling towers are typically rectangular, box-like structures filled with a material that enhances the contacting of the upflowing air and the downflowing water.

In areas with restricted water use a dry cooling tower or radiator, directly air cooled, may be necessary, since the cost or environmental consequences of obtaining make-up water for evaporative cooling would be prohibitive. These have lower efficiency and higher energy consumption in fans than a wet, evaporative cooling tower.

Where economically and environmentally possible, electric companies prefer to use cooling water from the ocean, or a lake or river, or a cooling pond, instead of a cooling tower. This type of cooling can save the cost of a cooling tower and may have lower energy costs for pumping cooling water through the plant's heat exchangers. However, the waste heat can cause the temperature of the water to rise detectably. Power plants using natural bodies of water for cooling must be designed to prevent intake of organisms into the cooling cycle. A further environmental impact would be organisms that adapt to the warmer plant water and may be injured if the plant shuts down in cold weather.

In recent years, recycled wastewater, or grey water, has been used in cooling towers. The Calpine Riverside and the Calpine Fox power stations in Wisconsin as well as the Calpine Mankato power station in Minnesota are among these facilities.

Other sources of energy

Other power plants use the energy from wave or tidal motion , wind, sunlight or the energy of falling water, hydroelectricity. These types of energy sources are called renewable energy.


Hydroelectric dams impound a reservoir of water and release it through one or more water turbines to generate electricity.

Pumped storage

A pumped storage hydroelectric power plant is a net consumer of energy but decreases the price of electricity. Water is pumped to a high reservoir when the demand, and price, for electricity is low. During hours of peak demand, when the price of electricity is high, the stored water is released through turbines to produce electric power.

Solar Power Plant

A solar photovoltaic power plant uses photovoltaic cells to convert sunlight into direct current electricity using the photoelectric effect. This type of plant does not use rotating machines for energy conversion.

Solar thermal power plants are another type of solar power plant. They use either parabolic troughs or heliostats to direct sunlight onto a pipe containing a heat transfer fluid, such as oil. The heated oil is then used to boil water into steam, which turns a turbine that drives an electrical generator. The central tower type of solar thermal power plant uses hundreds or thousands of mirrors, depending on size, to direct sunlight onto a receiver on top of a tower. Again, the heat is used to produce steam to turn turbines that drive electrical generators.

There is yet another type of solar thermal electric plant. The sunlight strikes the bottom of a water pond, warming the lowest layer of water which is prevented from rising by a salt gradient. A Rankine cycle engine exploits the temperature difference in the water layers to produce electricity.

Not many solar thermal electric plants have been built. Most of them can be found in the Mojave Desert of the United States although Sandia National Laboratory (again in the United States), Israel and Spain have also built a few plants.

Wind Power Plant

Wind turbines can be used to generate electricity in areas with strong, steady winds, sometimes offshore. Many different designs have been used in the past, but almost all modern turbines being produced today use a three-bladed, upwind design. Grid-connected wind turbines now being built are much larger than the units installed during the 1970s, and so produce power more cheaply and reliably than earlier models. With larger turbines (on the order of one megawatt), the blades move more slowly than older, smaller, units, which makes them less visually distracting and safer for airborne animals. Old turbines are still used at some wind farms, for example at Altamont Pass and Tehachapi Pass.