Navigating the Energy Trilemma

The energy trilemma names three conflicting outcomes of energy production: security of supply, affordability for all populations, and environmental protection. The trilemma has become a keyword in policy arenas, serving as an organizing rubric for experts to debate how to balance these demands. 

Image of an orange triangle on a blue background. Energy equity is located at the bottom left point; environmental sustainability is located at the bottom right corner; and energy security is at the top of the triangle.

There is, however, a need to critically reflect on the import of this framework; to ask what is pushed aside when we prioritize these pressure points. As Rinkinen and Shove explain, 

“The trilemma focuses on supply, and because of this, responses are at least implictly designed to ensure the same or increasing levels of service. In overlooking demand, talk of the trilemma inadvertently sustains specific understandings of ‘normal’ and acceptable practice and favours technological responses and solutions that cater to these so-called needs. In this respect, trilemma-based discourses help perpetuate present (contemporary, Western) practices and in so doing help maintain (or extend) the ‘size’ of the triangle, and thus the scale of the problem.” (Rinkinen and Shove 2019, 100)

The Energy Rights Project joins other who look critically at the assumptions underlying the trilemma. We begin with energy’s affordability, investigating how policies designed to provide energy assistance (federal assistance, PUC guidelines, utility company programs, and nonprofit offerings, for example) work in tension with other concerns. We are particularly interested in how stakeholders navigate the trilemma within the context of energy assistance work in the U.S. MidAtlantic; how solar power advocates pitch household and community scale transitions to vulnerable populations, for example, or how multi-state polices, like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, allocate resources to reduce disproportionate environmental burdens, or fund basic systems repair for aged housing stock. 

The importance that each point in the trilemma has varies across contexts; geographically, affordability has been prioritized in the U.K. (Demski et al. 2017; Rinkinen and Shove 2019) while in Denmark environmental protection is thoroughly entrenched in policy and culture (Sovacool 2015). In this project, we ask what is meant by affordability, security, and environmental protection, and for whom?