Major types of power plants to generate energy

EBR Staff Writer Published 15 December 2017

With a surge in demand for electricity to power industries and households across the world, many new sources of power generation have emerged in the past few decades. While coal still continues to be a major source of electric generation, solar, wind and other renewable energy sources have emerged as major alternatives to produce power in recent years. With growing energy needs, environmental concerns and depleting fossil fuel based energy sources, scientists are looking for alternative sources of energy.

Here is the list of different types of power plants:

Nuclear power plant: Using a nuclear fission reaction and uranium as fuel, nuclear power plants generate high amount of electricity. As nuclear power plants emit low greenhouse gas emissions, the energy is considered as environmentally friendly. When compared to renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind, the power generation from nuclear power plants is considered to be more reliable. Though the investments required to set up nuclear power plants are huge, the costs involved in operating them are low. Besides, nuclear energy sources have higher density than fossil fuels and release massive amounts of energy. Due to this, nuclear power plants require low quantities of fuel but produce enormous amounts of power.

Image: The Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, the largest nuclear power facility in the world. Photo courtesy of Chuck Szmurlo/Wikipedia.

Hydroelectric power plant: Hydroelectricity is produced by harnessing the gravitational force of flowing water. Compared to fossil fuel-powered energy plants, hydroelectric power plants emit lesser amounts of greenhouse gases. However, construction of hydroelectric power plants and dams need huge investments. According to the International Hydropower Association’s 2017 Hydropower Status Report, an estimated 31.5 GW of hydropower capacity was put into operation, including pumped storage, bringing the world’s cumulative installed capacity to 1,246 GW in 2016. China alone accounted for almost one-third of global hydropower capacity and added around 11.74 GW of new capacity in 2016.

Coal-fired power plant: In this type of power plants, coal is used as a source to generate electricity. According to World Coal Association, coal-fired power plants currently account for 41% of global electricity. Coal-fired power plants use steam coal as source to generate electricity. However, these power plants emit a significant amount of harmful gases into the atmosphere. In a bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, some developed nations have already announced plans to phase out coal-fired power plants. In November 2016, the Canadian government had announced plans to phase out its coal-fired power plants by 2030. In the same month, the UK government had outlined plans to phase out coal-fired power plants by 2025.

Image: Coal-fired power plants use steam coal as source to generate electricity. Photo courtesy of John Kasawa/

Diesel-fired power plant: With diesel as fuel, this type of power plants is used for small scale production of electric power. They are also installed in places where there is no easy availability of alternative power sources. Diesel power plants are mainly used as a backup for uninterrupted power supply whenever there are outages. These plants require a small area to install and offer higher thermal efficiency compared to coal-fired power plants. Due to high maintenance costs and diesel prices, the power plants have not gained popularity like other types of power generation plants such as steam and hydro.

Geothermal power plant: Geothermal energy is used by this kind of power plants to generate electricity. The three main types of geothermal plants include dry steam power stations, flash steam power stations and binary cycle power stations. Geothermal power plants use steam turbines to produce electricity. As of May 2015, worldwide geothermal power capacity stood at 12.8GW spread across 24 countries, according to a report by Geothermal Energy Association. Geothermal power plants are considered as environmentally friendly as they emit lower levels of harmful gases compared to coal-fired power plants.


Image: The Domo de San Pedro geothermal power plant in Mexico. Photo: courtesy of Grupo Dragon/Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems, Ltd.

Combined-cycle power plant: Using both gas and steam turbines, combined-cycle power plants produce higher amounts of electricity from a single fuel source compared to a traditional power plant. The plants capture heat from the gas turbine to increase power production.  They are also found to release low amounts of harmful gases into the atmosphere.      

Solar power plant: These plants convert energy from the sun into thermal or electrical energy. It is one of the cleanest and most abundant renewable energy sources. Solar energy plants generally do not require high maintenance and last for about 20-25 years. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projected in 2014 that by 2050 solar PV and solar thermal would contribute about 16 and 11%, respectively, of the worldwide electricity consumption and solar would be the world’s largest source of electricity. However, initial costs involved in setting up solar power plants are high. Installation of solar power systems requires a lot of space.

Solar-thermal power plant: Solar thermal is a system of giant mirrors. They are arranged in such a way to concentrate the sun’s rays on a very small area to create significant amount of heat. It is used to create steam to power a turbine that creates electricity.

Image: Rendering of SolarReserve’s 390 MW Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) Likana Solar Project with 5.1 GW-hours of energy storage. Photo: courtesy of SolarReserve, LLC.

Wind power plant: Wind energy is one of the major renewable energy sources with a huge potential.  In recent years, there has been a rapid growth in the number of wind farms across the world, underpinned by technological advancements. As wind is naturally occurring source of energy, there are no limitations to harness power from wind. Operational costs involved in maintaining wind power plants are low after the erection of wind turbines and they are considered to be cost effective. Wind farms can also be built on agricultural lands, without causing any interruption to cultivation activities. However, maintenance of wind turbines may vary, as some need frequent checks. Wind power projects also need huge capital expenditure.

Tidal power plant: Tidal energy is generated from converting energy from the force tides into power. Tidal energy production is considered to be more predictable compared to wind energy and solar power. Despite this, tidal power is still not exploited widely even as the world’s first large-scale tidal power plant became operational in 1966. However, increased focus on generating power from renewable sources is expected to accelerate the development of new methods to exploit the tidal energy. Though the development of the tidal power is at the nascent stage, it is estimated to have a vast potential globally.

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