Electricity is at the root of everything that we think of as modern. In a practical sense it defines modernity. All of those adjuncts to living in an advanced society that began to appear from the end of the 19th century—electric lighting then electric motors, radio, television, home appliances, and, in the last part of the 20th century, the myriad of electronic devices that have been spawned by the development of the transistor including computers and portable telephones—rely exclusively on electricity for their operation. Their wide- spread use would not be possible without electricity and the complex electricity supply system that has evolved to deliver it.
Not only is electricity one of the foundations of a modern developed society, electricity is also capable of nourishing the advancement of a society. Some- thing as simple as the availability of electric lighting can lead to enormous ben- efits in terms of levels of education and quality of life. In consequence, electricity supply is a key element of international development aid. Meanwhile the citizens of many less-developed nations yearn for an adequate electricity supply and all the benefits that it can bring. Ironically, most of the citizens of the world’s advanced societies take it for granted.
The industry that supplies electricity and maintains the network that allows it to be delivered to virtually any location on the planet makes up what is probably the largest single industrial endeavor in the world. At the same time, the supply of electricity is a complex operation. Electricity is not a physical commodity like steel or maize even though it is often bought and sold as if it were such a commodity. Electricity is an ephemeral energy source that must be consumed immediately after it is produced. This means that any power station that is producing electrical power must have a customer ready to use it. This careful balancing act is carried out across a network of electricity supply lines con- trolled by network operators whose primary job is to ensure that the balance between demand and supply is maintained at all times.
Electricity supply is also a security issue. While people untouched by modernity can still live their lives without electricity, a modern industrial nation deprived of its electricity supply is like a great ocean liner without it engines. It becomes helpless. Consequently, governments must ensure that their people and their industries are kept supplied, and national electricity supply strategies will often have security of supply as one of their main considerations.
This book is primarily about the ways of generating electricity. It does not cover in depth the means of transporting electricity and delivering it to those who wish to use it. Nor does it treat, except obliquely, the political issues that attach themselves to electricity supply. What it does attempt is to provide an explanation of all the myriad ways that humans have devised to produce this most elusive of energy forms.
The book is divided into chapters each devoted to one type of electricity generation. The explanations provided are thorough and technical where necessary, but do not resort to overly technical language where it can be avoided. Readers who are seeking a full analysis of the thermodynamics of the heat engine or the differential equations for solving the problem of turbine flow, will need to look elsewhere, but those who seek a thorough understanding of electricity generation will find it here.
The aim of this book is to provide a description of every type of power generation. Even so, there will be occasional lacunas; there is no description of magnetohydrodynamic power generation, for example, although even this obscure phenomenon does earn a brief mention in Chapter 14 on marine power generation. That aside, all practical and some still experimental means of pro- ducing electricity are included.