History of the Power Plant

A power plant is a facility that is used to produce electric power. It functions with the help of one or more generators that are responsible for converting different energy sources into electric power. It is a place where energy conversions take place. Power plants are generally located in sub-urban regions that are far away from cities, especially larger ones. It’s because power plants need a huge land area and sometimes water area, as well.

The electricity produced in a power plant is all AC or alternating current. Unlike the type found in households, which is DC or direct current. Power plants can also be divided into two categories, which are conventional and non-conventional. Conventional power plants include fossil fuel power plants, nuclear power plants, and hydroelectric power plants. On the other hand, non-conventional power plants include wind power plants, solar power plants, geothermal power plants, and biomass power plants.

Today, there are many power plants worldwide, since electricity is very important in people’s lives, and many sources of electricity are now available. But have you ever wondered how power plants began? If you are curious, you’re in the right place. Today, we are going to talk about the history of the power plant.


Zenobe Gramme, a Belgian inventor, developed a generator in the early 1871s. This generator was powerful enough to produce power on a commercial scale for industry. In 1878, William Lord Armstrong designed and built a hydroelectric power stain at Cragside, England. This power station powered the Siemens dynamos, an electrical generator, by using water from lakes on his estate. The electricity generated from this supplied power to heating and lights, and was able to produce hot water, powered an elevator, labor-saving devices, and as well as farm buildings.

A central station that provided public power was built in Godalming in the autumn of 1881. It was planned after the town was unable to fulfill an agreement on the rate charged by the gas company. That’s why the town decided to use electricity instead. The central station used hydroelectric power for household lighting and street lighting. However, it was not a commercial success, leading the town to return to the use of gas.

The very first coal-fired public power plant in the world was built in 1882 in London, called the Edison Electric Light Station. It was a project by Thomas Edison and was organized by Edward Johnson. A 93 kW or 125 horsepower steam engine that drove 27 tonnes or 27 long tons generator was powered by a Babcock & Wilcox boiler. It was able to supply electricity to places that could be reached through the channels of the viaduct without the need to dig up the road, which was the domination of the gas companies. Some of the customers of this coal-fired power plant included the City Temple and the Old Bailey. Aside from them, another important customer was the Telegraph Office of the General Post Office. However, it could not be reached through the channels. Therefore, Johnson set the supply cable to run overhead via Holborn Tavern and Newgate.

The Pearl Street Station, which was the first commercial central power plant in the United States, was established in New York in September 1882. It was developed by Edison to provide electric lighting in the lower Manhattan Island area. This power plant ran until it was destroyed by fire in 1890. It used reciprocating steam engines to convert direct-current generators. Due to the DC distribution, the service area was small, and it was limited by a voltage drop in the feeders.

George Westinghouse started building an alternating current system in 1886. It used a transformer to step up voltage for long-distance transmission. Then, it stepped back down for indoor lighting, which was a more efficient and cheaper system similar to modern systems. When the war of the currents was resolved, it was in favor of AC distribution and utilization. However, some DC systems continued to the end of the 20th century. DC systems that have a service radius of a mile or kilometer or so were essentially smaller, less efficient when it comes to fuel consumption, and more labor-intensive to operate compared to larger central AC generating power plants.

Alternating current systems used a wide range of frequencies, which depend on the type of load. For example, the lighting load used higher frequencies, while traction systems and heavy motor load systems used lower frequencies. The economics of the central power plant improved greatly when unified light and power systems that operated at a common frequency were developed. The same generating plant that fed large industrial loads during the day could also feed commuter railway systems during rush hour. In the evening, it could serve a lighting load, which improved the system load factor and the overall cost of electrical energy. However, many exemptions also existed, such as, generating stations were dedicated to power or light by choice of frequency, and rotating frequency changers and rotating converters were mainly common to feed electric railway systems from the overall lighting and power network.

Central power plants became larger throughout the first few decades of the 20th century. They used higher steam pressures to provide greater efficiency. They also relied on the interconnections of multiple generating stations to improve reliability and cost. Hydroelectric power was allowed by high-voltage AC transmission to be conveniently moved from distant waterfalls to city markets.

Around 1906, the beginning of the steam turbine in central station service enabled a great expansion of generating capacity. During this time, generators were no longer limited by the power transmission of belts or the slow speed of reciprocating engines. They could also grow to enormous sizes. For example, Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti, a British electrical engineer and inventor, planned what would have been the largest reciprocating steam engine ever built for a proposed new central power plant. However, he canceled his plans when turbines became available in the necessary size.

The creation of power systems out of power plants needed combinations of engineering skill and financial insight in equal measure. Some of the pioneers of central station generation were Samuel Insull and George Westinghouse in the United States, Charles Hesterman Merz and Ferranti in the United Kingdom, and many more.

It’s amazing to know that the modern power plants we have today evolved from more complex developments in the past. The different sources of energy we have today, which power plants are converting into power, continue to help people obtain affordable and reliable electricity, which powers lamps and heaters that keep us comfortable, gadgets that keep us connected, and more.