Tackling the energy trilemma—globally

By Beth Buckmaster | May 31, 2023

The energy trilemma isn’t new within the industry, but more than ever the concept is now at the forefront of our planning and designs. Organizations are addressing the importance of providing energy that is equally reliable, sustainable, and affordable, and asking: how can we offer energy solutions that effectively address these criteria, and mitigate risk and concerns?

To do this, we need innovative solutions grounded in tangible offerings, policies, and opportunities. Only then can we align technical expertise with solutions that provide end-users and stakeholders with energy solutions that are reliable and sustainable without sacrificing affordability.

What is the energy trilemma?

The energy trilemma addresses the future of energy and the need to balance reliability, sustainability, and affordability within design, performance, and end-user experience. In other words, the industry is focused on creating a “perfect” energy source that covers each of these criteria without sacrificing one for the other.

For example, a wind farm is an affordable form of energy and one of the most sustainable types of power available. But without wind, there’s no power generated, rendering wind generation less reliable than other forms of power (unless coupled with storage which adds cost). Another example is nuclear energy. While reliable and clean, nuclear projects can stall due to financial challenges.

The list of energy forms that cover two of the three criteria is lengthy and begs the question of how we can source and implement energy that meets all three components. There are no perfect or easy answers, but by thinking innovatively, we can begin to build practical, safe, sustainable, affordable, and reliable solutions.

How can we use innovative solutions to address the trilemma?

There are a number of tangible solutions that directly address the energy trilemma in a practical way.

Recent advancements in High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) technology have made extra long-distance transmission technically and economically feasible in many jurisdictions. HVDC has traditionally been used for long distance power transmission—but the introduction of the voltage source has allowed for improved controllability and more stable connection to weaker areas and systems.

Connecting renewable generation sites (including offshore wind) to distant load centers is also now possible in ways not previously imaginable, bridging the equity factor by bringing sustainable and affordable electricity to those who may not have previously had access.

Large-scale battery projects will also help wind and solar balance the trilemma, bringing reliability to the source. Small modular reactors (SMRs) are addressing the trilemma with reactors that will be off the shelf, making them quick to build and affordable, providing industry with another option to decarbonize and bring reliable and sustainable electricity to remote communities.

Innovation, policy, and a healthy dose of grit has allowed low-carbon hydrogen to finally arrive at the promised “20-year” horizon, helping to bring sustainable options to industry (including green steelmaking, green ammonia, and large-vehicle transportation), and utilities looking to decarbonize their grids.

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Risk management

Private industry cannot do this alone. Sound policy is needed in order to prioritize and build projects that aim to balance affordability, sustainability, and reliability while respecting host and Indigenous communities. Policy is also needed to signal to private investors that investing in projects balancing the energy trilemma is a sound decision, and to indicate that governments are willing to invest important public funds to help move these projects forward.

Our work in the power sector spans both developed and emerging economies, and the energy trilemma involves complexities in both scenarios. In the developed world, sound policy should enable industry players and investors to develop solutions that navigate the three imperatives of the energy trilemma. But what about the developing world?

Energy poverty is a major issue being addressed by development funding mechanisms. It is critical that these regions embrace renewable generation, rather than follow the historical pathway to industrialization via fossil fuels. To help do this, Hatch is involved in projects around the world that involve renewable storage along with transmission and distribution networks to reach segments of the population that have never had access to electricity.

Hatch tackles the tough. We work with our clients, partners, and industry to solve industry roadblocks and balance competing objectives so that we can help move industry forward, and we apply the same set of rules and standards to balancing the trilemma.

These transitions won’t happen if we are siloed. All of us, our whole industry— even competing industries—need to work together to innovate to successfully gain that balance. With our clients, industry stakeholders, and communities, we can work to get this right and create positive change, together.

Contact us to find out more and to discuss further how Hatch is responding to the energy transformation, and how we can help you.

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