The Energy Trilemma

Energy is a part of all our lives and something we take very much for granted. But this is obviously not the case for all people, especially in the developing world.

In order for energy to be available for all, we need to solve the Energy Trilemma.

A trilemma is often defined as something with three equally contradictory options. In the case of Energy, the three options here are that energy must be Sustainable, Affordable, and Secure.

Energy Sustainability: Generating energy must be environmentally sustainable, we cannot generate energy which comes from such dirty and or dangerous sources that it has a seriously adverse effect on the planet.

Energy Affordability: Energy must be equally available and affordable to all. There is no point generating energy at a price point that rules out the poorest 50% of the country’s population from accessing it.

Energy Security: Energy needs to be secure, reliable and around for the long-term to enable populations to rely on it.

So this does not sound too tricky. Surely we should be able to solve this Trilemma? Consider the following scenarios.

In many parts of the world, coal is abundant and very cheap. So, for affordable and secure energy, you should build a coal-fired power station. However, this is certainly not sustainable as coal has massive carbon emissions. So, let’s build a biomass or wood-fired power station, right? But now, there may be problems with the reliable, long-term supply of the biomass.

Let’s go really sustainable, with wind turbines or solar panels. This is not dependable as the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine. Also, once you start to add battery packs to store the energy created, the price increases massively. 

Arguably the most dependable and secure form of energy generation is nuclear. Once the initial fuel stocks are supplied, nuclear power stations can run for decades without ever re-fuelling; but the environmental (sustainable) issues surrounding nuclear power stations are well known, not to mention the potential catastrophic failures associated with these (remember Chernobyl?)

So what is really dependable and sustainable? What about wave, tidal or hydro power? Yes, but in order to generate the amount of power needed, these would be extremely costly for the number of units needed as well as very costly to connect the units to a grid due to the locations. Also, there are a limited number of locations suitable for this type of power generation, especially in developing countries.

So what is the answer? As you can see from the scenarios above, there is no simple over-arching answer. The energy trilemma has to be answered on a local scale.  A local scale may operate on a national level, but can also mean on a town-by-town basis.

The UK, for example, has abundant opportunities for wind power, both on-shore and off-shore, so this must be used. The UK is also a wealthy country, so battery storage of intermittent wind power should be used – however, those batteries may be hydrogen fuel cells soon?

In a remote part of Africa, common sense suggests solar should be the answer. Around the coastal regions of Africa, wave or tidal solutions can apply and around rivers, what about hydro? There is no right answer. The energy trilemma is very hard to solve.

However, there is an organisation called World Energy (www.worldenergy.org) that publishes an annual “World Energy Trilemma Index”, which provides an objective rating on 128 different countries’ answers to the energy trilemma. The latest Index published in October 2020 shows the top 10 performers, and also the top 10 biggest improvements as seen below:

Not surprisingly, the top 10 are developed countries who have the time, resources and money to plan energy strategies. It is also interesting to see which countries have improved most in the last 20 years.

Adapting and answering the Energy Trilemma will no doubt continue changing as a result of new technologies, political will, environmental disasters etc., but this is critically important for the development of the globe. Th Energy Trilemma is at the forefront of all decision makers’ minds.  

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