This is a really interesting question. It seems to me that in the past we haven’t been pursuing this option because energy was cheap and plentiful. According to the article linked below, now we are starting to pursue the option of high efficiency natural gas power stations.
Perhaps it doesn’t feel like we are aggressively pursuing this option because this is such a slow moving thing. Building new power stations is expensive and only done as needed, so the old coal stations will likely be used until they are no longer profitable.
The power generation industry (utilities) thinks about this question through the term “levelized cost of energy”. In general, LCE is a complex index that tries to take in all the related costs from fuel price, to capitial cost of construction, and even the waste disposal cost for nuclear fuel. See the link for more information.
Today, coal still remains the cheapest form of power based on LCE. Natural gas comes in second and most renewables like wind and solar are next.
When a utility plans out its generation profile, they typically plan to meet the base load with coal and hydro because these sources are not “dispatchable” meaning they aren’t easy to turn up and down in response to changes in demand. Combined cycle turbines, on the other hand, are quite easy to turn on and off or up and down so they are typically used as “peaking plants” or as merchant power plants to supplement the base load during the prime energy use hours of 9am to 6 pm.
In the future, we may have additional considerations if a cap and trade program is instituted to place a real economic cost to the price of pollution. If this occurs, natural gas and coal may invert their positions as coal fired generation is typically a larger polluter than natural gas fired turbines or boilers.
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