The energy trilemma is how to balance three aspects of energy production: security of energy supply; the environmental sustainability of energy chains; and energy affordability. Balancing this trilemma is a challenge, as countries prioritise according to their own regional issues. Many governments of developed nations, where electricity is available and affordable, have opted to increase their investment in environmental sustainability. However, low to middle-income countries, with both low per capita GDP and CO2 emissions, tend to prioritise economic growth and improved access to affordable electricity.
The aim of the Paris Agreement is to limit the global temperature increase to 2°C and to achieve this through the decarbonisation of the global economy. Many governments have therefore set challenging targets for renewable energy uptake within the next few decades. However, a carbon-free electricity generation system based on renewable energy for baseload is not currently achievable. Further, uptake of renewable energy over the next decades will be insufficient to cover increased electricity demand from electrification of transport and industry as countries also move away from oil and petroleum. Until carbon-free baseload power is achievable at scale, the push towards the environment corner of the trilemma will be challenging and expensive and will raise issues of energy security in some regions. Energy security and the delivery of consistent and reliable power is vital for stable and growing economies. The security corner of the triangle will always take priority and so strategies to reduce emissions must ensure that the security of energy supply is maintained.
This report discusses how the desired rapid decarbonisation of the energy sector in an economic and timely fashion will be a significant challenge without coal in at least a bridging capacity, particularly in low-middle income countries. The pathways for phasing out traditional coal use in terms of cost, technical feasibility, and the effect on economies and society are reviewed. Clean coal technologies could act as a bridge to cleaner power and should be considered as future zero emission options.
Understanding the Role of Coal in the Energy Trilemma
Dr Lesley Sloss and Dr Eusebio Loria