Solving the Energy ‘Trilemma’

Alan Thompson, Arup's Director of Energy Business UKMEA asks “How do you decide on the perfect energy source to meet all your future needs?”

Anyone familiar with the global energy debate knows it can be impenetrable, volatile, subtle and highly complex – often simultaneously.

Yet at its heart lie three basic issues – affordability, security and climate impact.

It is this ‘trilemma’ that keeps engineers, economists, environmentalists, NGOs, politicians and consumers in a constant state of heated debate as the parties argue their case for the best way of meeting our energy needs now and in the future.

It is certainly a tricky balancing act. People worried about carbon emissions argue for greater use of nuclear, solar, wind and tidal power to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and keep the spirit of the Kyoto Protocol alive.

Anyone interested in geopolitics will point to arguments over energy security; the influence of OPEC; or the ability of certain states to turn off the gas taps if they don’t feel that they are being accorded enough respect, to take just a few examples. In these cases, they might favour domestic solutions such as hydro, coal and shale gas where available.

And pity the poor consumers who have to pay for it all. Over the generations we have been told that practically limitless free energy lies just around the corner, if only the technology can just be refined for nuclear fusion / fission / solar / wind / biofuels (delete according to age / location).

All this while populations in many regions worry more about whether they can even afford energy to cook or heat their homes rather than how it might impact climate change effects or be vulnerable to geopolitical insecurity.

Like Goldilocks’ porridge, the best energy must not be too expensive, not too unreliable and not too carbon intensive. Unlike Goldilocks, however, few are likely to see a fairy tale ending to this story any time soon.

For most of us in the real world, the only answer to meeting our future energy needs lies in diversity. A balanced energy mix that provides affordable, reliable energy that is sourced with an appreciation of the trade-offs needed to tackle climate change.

Utilising a sensible mix of energy resources means making well thought out, hard-won compromises and creating bespoke solutions tailored for specific geographies and markets.

So in the US, the shale gas revolution is important in providing affordable energy at a time of insecurity across many of the oil-producing nations of the Middle East.

In the UK, solar and onshore and offshore wind are essential. Yet it is only as part of a diversified energy mix that they can consistently deliver in conjunction with a reliable base load, whether that is from nuclear, natural gas, shale gas or coal utilising carbon capture technologies.

And in the emerging economies of Asia and Africa there is huge potential for low carbon, inexpensive energy solutions, but they must be viewed in conjunction with optimising the balance between all three elements of the ‘trilemma’, affordability in particular.

Of course, the best answer of all must not be overlooked when it comes to meeting our future needs – that is for everyone to become far more energy efficientwhile building dynamic links between the supply and demand sides of the energy equation to increase their mutual efficiency.

If we can all do more to improve energy-efficiency standards in buildings and infrastructure and reduce the amount of power needed to run our appliances, homes, offices, vehicles and cities, we will have gone a long way toward easing our current trilemma.

Reducing energy consumption and boosting efficiency is the best way to decouple growing populations and increasing power consumption.

And this is a point that needs no mixed messages.

Alan Thompson is Arup's Director of Energy Business UKMEA. The article was originally written for