Electrical Generators

A generator produces electricity. It is constructed of two main parts, the Stator and the Rotor. These parts interact to generate electricity. Two important laws explaining how they interact are Faraday’s Law and Lenz’s Law. The speed of the generator must be kept constant to keep the electrical frequency at 50 Hertz.

The Mixed Pressure Steam Turbine 11 (Grey and Red), Generator 11 (marked G11) and its Condenser beneath (Green). River water enters through the large green pipes in the center – Image: Heurisko Ltd.

The Stator

The Stator is stationary and surrounds the Rotor.
The Stator:

The Rotor

The Rotor rotates and is in the centre of the generator.

The Rotor:

  • is on a steel shaft that is connected to the spinning turbine
  • has coils of wire in which the magnetic field is created using a DC current.
  • has sliding connections which allow the DC electricity to enter the rotor. These sliding connections are called ‘slip rings’

The Stator and the Rotor interact with each other, through the strong magnetic field between them. How they do this is explained by the following two laws.

The Physics of Faraday’s Law and Lenz’s Law

Faraday’s Law and Lenz’s Law are two important concepts in electro-magnetism. The generation of electricity is a constant battle between the effects of these laws.
Why does the rotor current have to be increased to get more electricity out?

There are two reasons for this:

  • It is the only practical method (Faraday’s Law)
  • The stator tries to demagnetise the rotor (Lenz’s Law).

Faraday’s Law

Faraday’s law explains that the output from a generator can be increased by either

  • increasing the number of turns of wire
  • increasing the strength of the magnetic field, or flux
  • spinning the rotor faster

However the only practical way to achieve this at Wairakei is the last case – spinning the rotor faster. This is done by governors on the turbines that deliver extra steam to the turbine if the rotor should slow down (due to increased load on the generators). This keeps the generator frequency at 50 Hz, the same as the national grid.

Lenz’s Law

 A manufacturer’s plaque on Generator 4 showing the design specifications – Image: Heurisko Ltd.

This law states that

‘The direction of induced current in a coil is such that it opposes the change in the magnetic field that produced it.’

Lenz’s Law explains how the instant the Stator coils have electricity induced in them, they too become magnets. The new magnetic poles always oppose or reduce the effect that created them. Effectively Lenz’s Law explains how the Rotor tries to demagnetise the Stator any time you increase the Stator’s magnetic field.

Keeping the Frequency constant

The electricity produced by a generator is alternating current electricity: the direction the electrons are travelling keeps reversing. This is because in the generator a North Pole then a South Pole go past the Rotor coil.

The speed at which a pair of poles (north and south) goes past a point is called the frequency.  In New Zealand the frequency is set at 50 times a second (50 Hertz or 50Hz).

A lot of effort goes into ensuring that the 50Hz frequency is maintained, to ensure all electrical equipment works correctly.

Calculating the Frequency
A 4-pole generator spinning at 1500 rpm A 2-pole generator spinning at 3000 rpm
= Number of poles/two x speed of rotor
= 4/2 X 1500 rpm
= 2 X (1500/60) rps
= 50 Hz
= Number of poles/two x speed of rotor
= 2/2 X 3000 rpm
= 1 X (3000/60) rps
= 50 Hz

Note:  The number of poles is divided by 2, to give the number of magnets
rpm is an abbreviation for ‘revolutions per minute’
rps is an abbreviation for ‘revolutions per second’

The Physics of Producing a Perfect Sine Wave

It is important that alternating current be as smooth as possible because all transformers, switchgear, motors and household appliances are designed to operate on such a supply. Ideally when graphed (by plotting either the voltage or current against time) this should be a perfect sine wave.

Sine Wave
sine wave

In a simple generator where the poles (magnetic fields) are stationary and the coil is rotated in the field, the waveform is exactly a sine wave. This is because the coil cuts the greatest flux (magnetic lines of force) at the sine of the angle.

The Importance of Turbine Speed

 This sign on Generator 4 warns of the intense magnetic field produced by the stator – Image: Heurisko Ltd.

In New Zealand, the grid has to maintain a frequency between 49.8 and 50.2 Hz. It also has to produce a set number of cycles a day to keep electric clocks running correctly. To produce a frequency of 50 Hz and meet the requirements, the turbine speed must be kept near constant.
This is done by:

  • altering the number of power stations generating and how much is generated from each machine.
  • the automatic, instantaneous and continuous control of turbine speed by a governor
  • the governor detecting any change in turbine speed, with immediate ‘feed back’ so the appropriate adjustment to the steam supply is made. For example, if the grid frequency drops, the steam supply on the turbine opens to try and generate more power. The opposite also happens.

Some factors that affect the load on a day-to-day basis, and hence frequency are:

  • the time of day and demand for electricity
  • the seasons
  • weather changes
  • what other power stations are doing
  • the state of the Cook Strait cables
  • damage to the National Grid

The governor systems deal with all instantaneous events. Significant events however are almost always the result of a major tripping, which normally means the North Island generators slow down and the South Island generators speed up.

If a power cut occurs over a large area then all the generators have to rapidly reduce their output to keep the frequency correct, in areas that still have power.

It is a constant juggling act, between all the power stations in NZ, to get market share and to keep the frequency at 50Hz.