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"Energy Trilemma" Considered Harmful

posted Aug 22, 2018, 3:30 AM by Barry McMullin   [ updated Aug 22, 2018, 3:44 AM ]
The “energy trilemma” starts with the idea that there are three key interacting goals in any national energy system strategy or policy; while precise terminology varies, we will label them here as:

  • Security (of supply)

  • Cost (including effects on trade competitiveness)

  • (Environmental) sustainability (including climate change mitigation)

This is termed a “trilemma” to indicate that, to at least some extent, these three aspects are all in tension or conflict with each other, and pursuing any one in isolation may therefore limit or compromise delivery on the others. But all three are evidently desirable if not essential (as in motherhood and apple pie): therefore we must presumably strive to carefully balance policy interventions across all three “legs” or “pillars” of the trilemma, and avoid “unduly” focussing on, or prioritising, any one of them. Indeed, this can be seen as exactly encapsulating the whole challenge of energy policy: were it not for this tension, and this need for balance, policy would surely be (relatively) straightforward — just pursue some single overriding policy goal!

Perhaps as a result of its widespread use and repetition, this formulation now seems so eminently sensible that it hardly requires any further elaboration or motivation. Indeed, since 2010, the energy trilemma has explicitly served as a central element for the work programme of the UN-accredited World Energy Council, in the form of their now annual report on the World Energy Trilemma Index:



This includes standardised assessments of the status of the “energy trilemma” for individual countries, such as Ireland:

(Aside: While not central to this particular blog post, it is impossible not to notice here that, according to the WEC, Ireland is ranked second best in the world on the “environmental sustainability” of its energy system. This for a country where, as of 2016, 92% of its primary energy was sourced from fossil fuels, including direct and indirect subsidies for burning peat — perhaps the single most environmentally destructive fossil fuel of all; and a country which actually ranked as second worst in Europe on an independent aggregate assessment of climate action, though admittedly that is also skewed by Ireland’s particularly strong profile of non-CO₂ GHG emissions from ruminant agriculture. Still: there are clearly some peculiar devils hidden in the details of the WEC energy trilemma methodology. But we will save any detailed discussion of that for a possible future post...)

Note that the WEC graphic device is subtly instructive here: the choice of an equilateral triangle to represent the trilemma clearly frames the three “dimensions” are essentially equal and symmetrical, at least as policy objectives. Again, the tacit implication appears to be that no one of the dimensions should be singled out or prioritised over the other two.

The earliest explicit use of the “energy trilemma” terminology that I have found dates from 2009 (Sautter et al, The Energy Trilemma in the Green Mountain State: An Analysis of Vermont's Energy Challenges and Policy Options), however the general trope of three more-or-less “equal” interacting goals in energy policy has certainly been around for much longer. In the specific Irish context again, we can go back at least to the Government White Paper of 2007 on Delivering A Sustainable Energy Future For Ireland where we read that:

“... the primary objectives of our energy policy as set out in this White Paper are: security of supply, environmental sustainability and economic competitiveness.”

It is possible that the emergence of this three-way characterisation at that time was influenced, consciously or otherwise, by what had already become the canonical definition of “sustainable development” as comprising three mutually dependent “pillars”, usually labelled “economic”, “social”, and “environmental”, and often illustrated as follows:

Although the graphical device is different, we again see a tacit commitment to essential equality and symmetry among the three aspects. Of course, these three specific dimensions of “sustainability” do not map precisely onto the commonly cited dimensions of the energy trilemma, so the comparison is suggestive at best. I will set it aside again for now (but revisit it before the end of the post!).

So: what’s the problem? If this is all so much common sense, how can the “energy trilemma” possibly be considered “harmful”?

Well, the central question to be resolved is whether the three aspects or dimensions really are “symmetrical”? Or, alternatively, whether there might actually be legitimate reasons and arguments for prioritising or privileging any relative to the others? Because if they are not, in fact, symmetrical, then the call for “balanced” treatment in policy might actually be mistaken, and potentially counter-productive. And if that were all indeed the case, it would surely be important to become aware of it as soon as possible.

OK, so cards on the table: my claim is that in fact, the three dimensions of the supposed “energy trilemma” are not “symmetrical”, but are actually best thought of (and pictured graphically!) as a prioritized hierarchy.

To explain this, I will first present a different but (I will argue) closely related hierarchy: Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. This is conventionally represented by a deliberately asymmetrical graphical device, namely a pyramid:

While there is much background and detail that could be explored in relation to the Maslow hierarchy, the essential idea is straightforward enough. The lower levels in the hierarchy provide enabling conditions for all the levels above: that is, unless and until a lower level is attained, it is difficult if not impossible to achieve the higher levels that depend upon it. Or to put it another way: it well be an ultimate societal goal that all citizens should have the opportunity to realize their full human social, creative and intellectual potentials, but if their basic physiological needs are not yet satisfied (food, water, shelter) then first addressing those basic needs must properly override all other priorities.

So, in an exactly similar manner, I would like to suggest that the standard “dimensions” of energy policy properly constitute not a “trilemma” of relatively equal aspirations to be “balanced” against each other, but a strict “hierarchy” of needs with a quite rigorous priority order between them, visualised as follows:


As with the Maslow hierarchy, the argument here is perfectly straightforward. At the bottom of this energy-needs hierarchy we place environmental “sustainability” precisely because if our energy system is not (indefinitely) sustainable — if it is not “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (in the words of the Brundtland report) — then in a perfectly reasonable sense, it cannot be called “secure” (and further, its real “cost” is effectively unbounded); by definition, it would ultimately, inevitably, fail to meet any needs at all (either for ourselves or our posterity). In the case in point, if, collectively, we do not succeed in effectively limiting anthropogenic climate change (in the sense of the Paris Agreement goals of limiting temperature rise under conditions of global equity and solidarity), then organised human civilization as we know it will almost certainly become impossible. So transitioning to a “sustainable” energy system (locally and globally), which is to say, achieving zero (or negative) ongoing energy system GHG emissions within a prudent assessment of the remaining Global Carbon Budget (GCB), needs to be viewed as an overriding priority in energy system policy. Unless and until our portfolio of policy measures meets the criterion of reliably achieving sustainability in this sense, then all considerations of “security” (never mind “cost”) must be properly regarded as essentially moot. In practice this likely amounts to prioritising early, equitable, reductions in energy consumption (i.e., protecting those in energy poverty while targeting those actions and practices in society that have the most intensive and discretionary consumption profiles), while rapidly ramping down unabated fossil fuel combustion (“unabated” here meaning “without capture and reliable long term storage of the produced CO₂ pollution”) and building out energy infrastructure capable of at least zero and preferably negative nett CO₂ emissions in operation.

But once we satisfy these policy conditions for long term environmental sustainability, then, of course, security becomes a critical consideration, precisely because the critical physiological and safety needs of any industrialised human society (the bottom two layers of the Maslow hierarchy) are completely contingent on ready access to adequate energy. And achieving energy security is especially challenging in a world, that, for the currently foreseeable future, will be struggling to deal with intensifying impacts from already transgressing multiple bio-physical planetary boundaries (of which climate change is only one, even if the most immediately acute). So again at this level of the energy-needs hierarchy, unless a society can have a high degree of security in its energy supply — robust in the face of potentially severe geo-political stresses — then the question of relative “cost” must still remain largely moot. Energy supply that may be seriously disrupted with little notice or control is not a basis for a stable, prosperous, society — no matter how “cheap” it may otherwise appear to be.

So, subject only to ensuring sustainable energy supply, then the second most important condition for energy system policy must be achieving adequate security of supply. In practice this will tend to favour the greatest feasible “insourcing” of supply by maximising use of indigenous zero- or negative-CO₂ energy resources; and secondarily maintaining strategic reserves of critical energy carriers where technically possible. But there is essentially no scenario in which concerns over short-term security should be allowed to undermine the strategic imperative to exit from (unabated) fossil fuel use. Moreover, in the case of a country such as Ireland, with very small and rapidly depleting indigenous fossil fuel reserves, and only highly speculative prospects of any new fossil fuel discovery (which, in any case, would be likely to be high cost, both technically and socio-politically) then even abated fossil fuel use (via carbon capture and storage) can be expected to play only a small and relatively transient role in our energy decarbonisation transformation.

Of course, if sustainability and security are assured, then it does finally become absolutely reasonable to judge energy system measures and policies against criteria of relative cost: we would want, as far as possible, to ensure that the required sustainability and security are indeed achieved in the most cost-effective manner possible. But it cannot be stressed too strongly that the very concept of “cost-effectiveness” becomes coherent only when the choices at hand are between alternatives that can all be considered as very likely to be successful in meeting the criteria for sustainability and security. Otherwise, cost comparisons are premature and inappropriate — comparing apples and oranges. Cutting energy system costs at the expense of compromising key thresholds of sustainability or security should never even enter in to the evaluation of energy system policy measures.

I promised to also connect this discussion back to the more general concept of “sustainable development” and its common formulation in the three (symmetrical) “pillars” of “economic”, “social”, and “environmental” sustainability. While not usually expressly described as a “trilemma”, this shares a similar cognitive framing, and tends to evoke similar concerns for “balance”; and is subject to exactly analogous critique to that presented here of the “energy trilemma”. For a detailed discussion (including the political history of the quite deliberate framing of sustainable development in this fundamentally equivocal way) see the article Sustainability at thwink.org; I will just quote the conclusion:

“There is a bird's nest of interdependencies between the three types of sustainability... Social sustainability depends on economic sustainability, and vice versa. Social and economic sustainability depend on environmental sustainability. To a much smaller extent, environmental sustainability depends on economic and social sustainability. But the dominant dependency is that from a systems thinking viewpoint, the human system is a dependent subsystem of the larger system it lives within: the environment. Therefore, of the three, environmental sustainability must be society's top priority.”

So, in conclusion, I have presented my case for replacing the terminology and preconceptions of the “energy trilemma” with those of the “energy-needs hierarchy”. To be clear, I believe it is very useful to view energy policy through the three “dimensions” of environmental sustainability, security and cost: but I would encourage anyone continuing to use this framework to explicitly recast it into the hierarchy formulation. It is only under conditions of full sustainability and secure (largely indigenous) supply that there can be proper discovery of the true cost of energy. This is the difficulty with the energy trilemma framing. If the essentially global and long-term view of an energy hierarchy, including alignment with the Paris Agreement, is not reflected in national policy-making then it is almost inevitable that energy cost will instead prioritise near-term and local priorities by being biased toward reflecting current costs accepting fossil fuel lock-ins without internalised constraints on their total future use.  

The properly accounted and internalised near-term cost should still, of course, be minimised: but in general, this cannot usefully be at the expense of undermining security of supply or (even more seriously) of destroying long term environmental sustainability for generations to come.