Our Energy Trilemma

Our energy trilemma is that Energy policy needs to balance three goals that defy simple solutions.

Energy policy needs to balance three goals that defy simple solutions.

“The development of stable, affordable, and environmentally-sensitive energy systems defies simple solutions. These three goals constitute a ‘trilemma’, entailing complex interwoven links between public and private actors, governments and regulators, economic and social factors, national resources, environmental concerns, and individual behaviours”

I couldn’t have put it better myself, so I simply quote from a report by the World Energy Council. And “No”, I have no idea who they are either. But I am grateful to them for enunciating clearly the three strands of the problem. If only our own political parties could speak to us so intelligently.

At the moment the UK’s labour party and the governing coalition are battling over issues of social equity. The labour party advocate an energy price freeze and the coalition advocate some kind of ‘improved’ market.

I don’t think anyone on either side seriously thinks either of these policies addresses longer term issues of social equity. And the arguments ignore the impact on the other two strands. Lower prices are bad for the environment. And in a society that has adopted a market-based way to provide energy, reducing the profitability of energy supply companies is bad for future energy security.

Similarly even the looming environmental threats from climate change cannot justify ignoring the other ‘horns’ of this trilemma. Increasing the price of energy or restricting its availability will have impacts on social equity and energy security.

And focussing on energy security – which means prioritising coal because of its widespread availability – has obvious devastating effects on any attempt to build a sustainable energy infrastructure.

So What?

It is only when we recognise the ‘three-pronged’ structure of our problem that we realise that a rational energy policy – whatever components it contains – will have one key feature:

  • A rational energy policy will disappoint all vocal advocates of one horn of the trilemma.

That means that almost everyone will fight to block it  and that almost no-one will speak up for it. You don’t believe me? Well consider some of the following – any or all of which could be part of a rational energy solution:

  • Fracking – which if implemented well could potentially help both energy security and reduce the use of coal (38% of UK supply today)  – is met with vehement ‘green’ opposition.
  • Wind turbines – which sustainably generated 6.4% of UK electricity supply today – are objected to almost religiously, and its energy generating capacity erroneously dismissed.
  • Nuclear Power – which for all its faults actually works and generated 21% of UK supply today – is objected to because despite being ‘low carbon’ it is not genuinely sustainable
  • The Severn Barrage – which could sustainably generate 5 GW (~7% of UK demand) of electricity for the same cost as Hinkley C – is objected to because of its effects on wading birds.
  • Coal-fired power stations – which generated 38% of UK electricity supply today at the lowest cost – are objected to because they are emit more carbon dioxide than gas-fired Power Stations.
  • Gas-fired power stations – which generated 25% of UK electricity supply today while emitting half the carbon dioxide – are actually being moth-balled rather than opening because they are ‘uneconomic’.
  • Increased energy costs – which are essential to pay for energy investment of whatever kind, and inevitable in any case because of increased worldwide demand – are objected to by almost everyone.

So although I don’t have ‘the solution’, I think that we do collectively have access to all the elements of a rational energy policy. But if we are to choose a rational policy, then we need to understand the nature of our trilemma. If we don’t understand this then democratically more people will object to every aspect of the solution than support it. And proponents of one aspect or another of energy policy will seek ‘victory’ or fight ‘defeat’. And using that language to describe our situation will make us all losers.

P.S. ‘Today’: This post was written on Saturday 2nd November 2013

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