What Is a Combined Cycle?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A combined cycle increases the efficiency of an electrical generator by using waste heat as a secondary source of energy. This results in more energy generation with less fuel, which cuts down on resource usage and may help power plants meet environmental targets. Some generation systems can be run on a combined cycle model, including coal, gas, and gasified technology. Manufacturers of power generation equipment offer a range of products for this need, and may be able to convert existing systems in some cases.

Waste heat may be used as a secondary source of energy to help power plants meet environmental benchmarks.
Waste heat may be used as a secondary source of energy to help power plants meet environmental benchmarks.

In traditional electrical generation with a fuel like gas, the fuel is burned to move a turbine, which generates electricity. Burning fuel results in the production of heat, which is normally vented as a waste product, along with other byproducts of combustion. With a combined cycle plant, the heat is instead used to produce steam, which powers a second turbine to make more energy. This turns a former waste product into an integral part of the power generation process.

One advantage to using a combined cycle system is that it can offer greater control over waste products. Power plants must develop systems for handling waste efficiently and appropriately, especially if it contains potential contaminants. Excess heat can be a significant problem that contributes to malfunctions and other issues; being able to use the heat to generate energy can simultaneously make it useful and provide a useful method for cooling waste heat so it doesn’t damage the power plant’s systems.

Power plants can also use such technology to increase their efficiency. Some may have specific targets they want to meet for reducing fuel use and generating as much power as possible on as little fuel as possible. Others may be preparing to meet mandates set by government agencies. In both cases, these systems cut waste and lower operational costs. These may be passed on to customers, who can pay less for the energy in some instances, especially after the combined cycle system has paid for itself.

Firms with an interest in developing power generation equipment may have several combined cycle options in their lineup. They also work on research to make it possible to modify or retrofit existing plants without taking them offline, or with minimal downtime. This can be particularly helpful in regions where there is an increased need for energy and infrastructure modifications are critically needed to meet the shortfall before residents and companies start experiencing shortages.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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