Can we resolve our energy 'trilemma'? - RSA

Can we resolve our energy 'trilemma'?

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  • Climate change
  • Social brain

As part of our research for 'The Power of Curiosity' report I came upon a particularly arresting turn of phrase that encapsulates one of the major policy issues of our time: 'the energy trilemma.'

“There’s what we call the energy trilemma; three great forces for change, but pulling in different directions. First of all you’ve got our commitment from the government around climate change, so we must reduce fossil fuel generation but this will need more investment in renewable and possibly nuclear generation. The second one is that we’ve got to keep the lights on which becomes more complex and costly with renewables as it’s less predictable and controllable. The third part of the trilemma is trying to manage the bills that you and I are faced with, in the context of the first two parts of the trilemma, in recent years we’ve seen bills rise higher than the rate of inflation and bills are hurting people.” - Daniel Taylor, Head of Innovation, British Gas

Trilemmas are every bit as real and pervasive as dilemmas, just not as widely discussed because they are significantly more complicated, and debates surrounding them are more difficult to follow. In this case, the issue at hand doesn't just apply to energy companies, so let's make it a bit clearer:

  • We have to reduce the impact of anthropogenic Climate change which means we have to significantly reduce and perhaps gradually eliminate fossil fuels from our energy supply. 
  • And yet we also have to retain a secure and stable energy supply with renewable forms of energy that are often thought to be less reliable ('the sun doesn't always shine, the wind doesn't always blow')
  • At the same time, while considering those trade offs and the costs incurred due to the fact(albeit an increasingly contentious one, and related to government subsidies for fossil fuels) that renewables tend to be more expensive, we have to recognise the existence of cost of living pressures on families throughout the country, especially those facing acute fuel poverty who sometimes literally freeze to death because putting the heating on has become too expensive.

It is hard to argue with the general validity of each of these imperatives, but we can, I think, question whether they deserve to be treated with equal strength and importance, and question some of the assumptions underpinning them.

Personally, I don't think we need to debate the first point at all, and I find myself motivated to challenge the validity of the second two imperatives. But before doing that it's important to keep perspectives and biases in mind. If you work for an energy company that relies on the supply of fossil fuels or if your responsibility is to keep the energy supply stable across the country(especially hard when people return from work apparently, when there is a huge surge in demand caused by heating and lights going on and meals being prepared); or if you struggle to pay your energy bills, or are a politician aware of the growing political importance of energy bills as an electoral issue you might be more inclined to problematise or interrogate the rather abstract and remote sounding first point, regardless of scientific opinion.  

Those attacking the first horn of the trilemma might not question the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but they could question, for instance, the validity of the 2 degree global target, or question whether this country should take any kind of leadership on the issue when other similar or more culpable countries are doing less.

Those attacking the second horn of the trilemma could ask: Surely we can significantly reduce our energy demand? Or ask: How secure and stable do you need the energy supply to be? Isn't it ok if the power goes off every so often? Couldn't we live with back-up generators maybe, as many in India do? Or perhaps that argument is too weak, and you accept the need for reliability and predictability, but you don't accept the contention that renewables alone can't provide that stability. In a previous post on 'The Third Industrial Revolution', the idea of an energy internet was suggested to deal with precisely this challenge.

Those attacking the third point might begin with the old suggestion to wear jumpers rather than turn the heating on, but that's a bit facile. The tougher question to pose, surely, is: Aren't the energy companies simply charging too much? In light of the importance of climate change and the security and stability of the energy supply, could a case be made that profiting out of energy provision is somehow morally wrong? If so, should there be some sort of cap on profits, or make it mandatory that profits are reinvested in renewable energy, or could there even a case for renationalising control of our energy?

You will notice, in each case, that none of the arguments or suggestions sound completely convincing, and even where they feel necessary, they sound politically implausible. That's why it appears to be a genuine trilemma. Something has to give.

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  • JJ Charlesworth: Thanks for the comment. You are right that
    the meaning of 'have to' is inexact here, and specifying time periods might be helpful to make the relative weight of the injunctions more precise(although my point was precisely that those relative weightings are contested).

    You are also right that there is a distinction between tax-breaks and subsidies, but the following article (especially the first link) on the degree of government support for fossil fuels makes me wonder how much the distinction matters:

    As for the reference to 'hysterics', I'll put that down to an infelicity of language rather than take it as an insult, but for what it's worth, I feel that lionising the 'can-do, fix it outlook' you mentioned might be part of the problem, because it frames the problem in a purely technical way, rather than obliging us to look at the challenge more deeply, as I wrote last week:

  • Actually, it's the fact that you are only thinking in terms of 'have to' that is the problem.

    The point is not that we might 'have to' reduce emissions, but over what time-period. Climate change orthodoxy is always that its already too late, that we must do everything now. THis isn't convincing.

    No, we do not 'have to retain a secure and stable energy supply with renewable forms of energy that are often thought to be less reliable'. We have to develop a low-carbon energy mix of sources, and if reliability is important, it will involve nuclear in a big way.

    Obviously, the point about the 'subsidy' of fossil fuels is a bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Fossil fuels are not 'subsidised', they're just not taxed. There is a difference. Renewables, as they stand, are capital-intensive yet energy-extensive. In layman's terms, they will always be expensive for as long as their output relative to capital outlay remains low.

    The sensible solution is to have a short-term policy to support the economy and ordinary peoples' living standards (ie building a lot of cheap, quick gas and coal capacity), for a limited period, exploiting fracking quickly as well, with a medium-term policy of nuclear building and heavy R&D in renewables. R&D is important - not just building bad, expensive, low-output renewables plant.

    Above all, stop with the hysterics. that's what generates the 'trilemma', rather than a can-do, fix-it outlook.

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