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With discovery of the dynamo-electric principle and the invention of the dynamo machine, Siemens laid a cornerstone for electrical engineering – the opening step in a history of more than 135 years of power plant construction.
Werner von Siemens developed the dynamo machine – his most important invention – by reconfiguring a magneto with a double-T armature. Electric voltage was generated when a wire was moved within a magnetic field. The principle was already in use in the first generation of magnetos with permanent magnets or battery-powered electromagnets, but there was one drawback: these machines couldn’t generate much power.
In 1866, Werner von Siemens found a pioneering solution. A suitably designed circuit enabled the machine to use what is known as "self-excitation" to generate the electricity that would excite the electromagnets. And thus the dynamo-electric principle was discovered, and the dynamo was invented. Now it would be possible to generate electric power on an unheard-of scale.
All the same, it took more than a decade to get the product onto the market. There were so many obstacles to overcome – ranging from insulation to controlling physical phenomena like eddy currents, which caused overheating and excessive loss.
Running large steam boilers had proved to be dangerous. With so much water in such volume, defects in materials or workmanship could cause a boiler to explode at high pressure.
In 1922, Mark Benson was granted a patent on a boiler for converting water to steam at high pressure. It took up less space than previous boilers, and was safer and more controllable. Siemens obtained a license under Benson's patent a year later, followed in August 1925 by a world-wide license. But as it turned out, further development was needed to achieve a really safe ultra-high pressure steam generator. The first commercial Benson boiler was finally started up in the fall of 1927 at the Gartenfeld cable plant in Berlin.
Yet building steam generators was outside the normal scope of Siemens' production program. So a few years later, the company decided to award licenses on the technology to companies that specialized in steam boiler construction.
Electric power consumption soared after World War I. Which is why Berlin's power utility, Berliner Elektrizitätswerke, found it essential to build a new power plant in the western part of the city, in the immediate vicinity of Siemens’ expansive Berlin site, Siemensstadt. The contract was awarded to Siemens-Schuckertwerke.
Construction started in 1928. Four years later, the new Kraftwerk West (today Heizkraftwerk Reuter, a combined heat and power plant) began supplying the city's west side with electricity. At 228 megawatts (MW), it was Berlin's second-largest power plant, and the most up-to-date thermal power plant in Europe. Thanks to new technologies, the plant could use significantly higher-powered boilers. And they could burn lower-grade coal, yet reduced nasty fly ash to almost zero.
The new plant also set new standards architecturally. Drawing on a concept from Siemens architect Hans Hertlein, whose structures still dominate the look of Siemensstadt today, the plant adopted the formal language of the "New Objectivity," with unadorned structural components focused on function.
When the ban on research was lifted in 1955, after the Federal Republic of Germany regained important rights of sovereignty following the Allied occupation, Siemens too found the way open to develop nuclear power plants. After only four years, a small research reactor started operation in the Munich district of Garching. A multipurpose research reactor in Karlsruhe followed in 1965, likewise intended to gather experience with the long-term behavior of materials, costs of equipment and operation and environmental pollution in nuclear power plants.
Finally, the first commercial success arrived in 1972 with the 660-megawatt Stade nuclear power plant – the first such plant able to generate electricity more cheaply than in conventional power plants. It was an incentive to set new records.
Two years later, Unit A of the Biblis nuclear power plant, near Worms, began a trial run. It was the world's biggest nuclear power plant to date. In those days, its output of some 1,200 megawatts (MW) was enough to supply electricity to a city of over two million residents, together with the associated industrial installations.
Using oil and gas, combined-cycle turbine technology – combining gas and steam turbines – is especially cost-effective and environmentally friendly. It is also a worldwide success. It uses the residual heat from the gas turbine to generate steam, which in turn runs a steam turbine further downstream. Today, this technology can achieve efficiencies of better than 60 percent.
In 1993, Siemens handed over the Rye House combined-cycle power plant in England to the customer ahead of schedule, after just 30 months of construction. With more than 90 percent availability, the plant had above-average operating performance compared to other gas-fired power plants in England.
In 1995, Rye House would become the only European power plant to win the "Project of the Year" award from U.S. magazine "Power Engineering International." And why? Maximum innovation in both design and construction, combined with reliable operation.
In 2009, Siemens completed the trial run of the world's most powerful gas turbine, the SGT5-8000H, at Bavaria’s Irsching 4 power plant – on schedule and with flying colors. After more than 1,500 hours of operation – over 1,200 of them at full load – and after an analysis of all the measurement data, the turbine's rated capacity was raised from the original 340 megawatts (MW) to 375 MW in pure gas-turbine operation. That boosted the capacity of the combined-cycle power plant to more than 570 MW – enough to supply power to a major city like Hamburg, with 2.2 million inhabitants.
When the full combined-cycle unit was finally commissioned in 2011, the Irsching 4 combined-cycle power plant set yet another world record: in a test run, it achieved an efficiency of 60.75 percent – a mark no fossil-fueled plant had ever surpassed.
High-efficiency, flexible combined-cycle power plants are an ideal complement for renewable energy sources like wind and sun, which have fluctuating output. In 2016, Siemens handed over the Lausward combined-cycle power plant, built on a turnkey basis with an H-class gas turbine, to its owner and operator, the municipal utility company Stadtwerke Düsseldorf AG.
The plant immediately set three new world records. During the acceptance measurements, maximum net output reached 603.8 megawatts (MW), and the electrical efficiency was measured at about 61.5 percent. On top of that, the "Fortuna" unit was able to transmit heat up to an output of about 300 MW into Düsseldorf’s district heating network – another international top value for a power plant with just one gas and one steam turbine.
The total utilization of the plant's natural gas fuel thus climbed as high as 85 percent. The core of the combined-cycle plant was the extremely high-performance Siemens SGT5-8000H gas turbine.