I am building a work in which steam plays a vital role. I would like to include the idea that much of the power for the people is being provided by a central machine that is isolated in one place but provides power to many places. Obviously, steam would cool down and condense if it was piped long distances, so what creative alternatives are there for distributing steam energy?
In real history ...
In real history, during the brief period of time when they had decent steam engines but electric generators and motors were scarce, they used compressed air as a medium for power transmission. A central power station used humongous pumps to compress air which was sent through pipes to consumers which used to power motors.
Citywide compressed air energy systems have been built since 1870. Cities such as Paris, France; Birmingham, England; Dresden, Rixdorf and Offenbach, Germany and Buenos Aires, Argentina installed such systems. Victor Popp constructed the first systems to power clocks by sending a pulse of air every minute to change their pointer arms. They quickly evolved to deliver power to homes and industry.
As of 1896, the Paris system had 2.2 MW of generation distributed at 550 kPa in 50 km of air pipes for motors in light and heavy industry. Usage was measured by cubic meters. The systems were the main source of house-delivered energy in those days and also powered the machines of dentists, seamstresses, printing facilities and bakeries. (Wikipedia)
Note 1: Compressed air remained in use for power transmission in industrial plants until well into the second half of the 20th century. Pneumatic tools continue in widespread use.
Note 2: Note the formulation of the answer: "when they had decent steam engines but electric generators and motors were scarce". The first practicable electric motors were invented in the 1830s, the first efficient generators in the 1840s; there was never a time when mankind had decent steam engines but electric geneators and motors were completely unknown.
I see that other solutions suggest converting steam power to other sorts of power. That is of course eminently sensible - especially pumping water in a pre-electric age.
However you specifically ask to distribute steam (I believe).
Obviously you will need to keep the steam hot.
Insulate the pipes by wrapping straw around them.
Have heating stations at regular intervals. People are employed to maintain them by keeping a fire burning under the pipe.
If glass technology is sufficiently advanced, make the pipes in a similar way to thermos flasks. This will efficiently keep the steam hot.
If the climate is right, use the sun's energy by focusing it on the pipes with huge mirrors. https://e360.yale.edu/features/a_potential_breakthrough_in_harnessing_the_suns_energy
I'm sure you don't want this, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this is how 'energy' is distributed in the modern world. Power plants heat steam, which drive a turbine, which spins a generator, which makes electricity, which is then distributed via high voltage power lines.
High pressure air
Instead of driving a generator that makes electric power, you could give a compressor that makes compressed air. This compressed air can then be piped medium distances. Before electricity, in the mid 19th century, compressed air was specifically used to overcome the condensation limitations of steam. For example, a compressed air plant provided air down the length of the Mount Cenis tunnel as it was drilled in the 1860s, a 13 km run.
Turn steam power into some other power
You can use the steam power to force a chemical reaction in one direction. The stored chemical energy can be released later. For example, a steam turbine can drive hydrolysis of water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can be stored (compressed!) and later burned for energy, or used in a fuel cell. This example mostly uses electricity, but I'll try to think of one that is a mostly thermal reaction.
Use steam power to generate gravitational potential energy
If you have an aqueduct going to distant towns, you can scoop up water with your steam engine, put it in the aqueduct, and then let it flow to the distant towns, providing mechanical energy upon its arrival. For medium distances, you could do the same thing with cars on a track powered by a chain, though that might not be super efficient. A chain could drive cars up an incline on a track. The potential energy in the cars at a higher elevation could be used to drive something as they are released downhill, driving some sort of rotary force that provides local mechanical power. The same chain would then pull the cars back and up the incline.
What you are asking is exactly how thermoelectric power plant works worldwide: steam is produced by various means (nuclear power, burning fossil fuels), then it is used to move a group of steam turbines attached to a power generators which produces electric power.
Electric power is then transmitted on electric lines to the end user, using the electricity for their scope.
The electricity I am using right now to type this answer has been produced in some power plant some hundred of kilometers from where I sit right now.
Don't move the power, move the fuel
Using a liquid or gas fuel you can move it via pipe to many smaller isolated steam engines, steam scales down fairly well, and are rather efficient to boot. This is what some cities actually did, it was way more efficient for have each factory to have its own steam engine running the entire building. This works even better than moving power since the fuel can also be used for heat, cooking, and light. Natural gas is probably your best bet. As an additional bonus this allows for portable power generation such as construction equipment, since fuel can be transported in containers.
Its a lot easier to move fuel long distance than to transfer mechanical energy, the loses due to absorption, deformation, and friction are just too high.
- A steam engine consists of a heat source, a boiler, and the engine itself (usually a cylinder with a piston, sometimes a turbine). The cylinder may be the smallest part. Pipe or transport hot steam from the boiler to a distant engine.
- Heat loss will be a problem with this scheme. So first turn the steam into pressurized air and pipe that over longer distances.
A bit odd/different but what if they didn’t know they created electricity? Say they found a way to convert steam into something else by using the steam turbine to spin another turbine wound with some of that cheap ol copper and they could send the steam power over some more cheap ol copper to the other end where the my could erm...heat some water to make more steam to use?
Seems fun to me that a steam powered community will come so close to electricity in every home but fall short by just bunching the wire up at the other end to make a rudimentary heating coil to make more steam. To them it would be amazing but to your audience it would be comical.