Trade-offs or Tightropes? The Question of Sustainable, Secure, Affordable Energy

Trade-offs or Tightropes? The Question of Sustainable, Secure, Affordable Energy

THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN BY ENERGY WATCH | 01.08.19 | 11:05 AM

Can you have electricity that is truly, secure, sustainable, and accessible for citizens, all at once? Welcome to the ‘energy trilemma’. Balancing this equation is a challenge for every country around the world. Tipping the scales too far in one direction will inevitably come at the cost of another. The world’s most secure electricity ecosystem is unlikely to be the cheapest. And enhancing sustainability will require financial commitments to deliver. While renewable energy is offering an increasingly powerful tool to tackle this challenge, the journey ahead remains a difficult one.

Energy watch trilemma

Tipping the scales too far in one direction will come at the cost of another.

The World Energy Council’s World Energy Trilemma Index 2018 offers a snapshot of this challenging energy equation. North American country Canada, enjoys the top rating for affordability and security, yet aging  domestic oil and gas infrastructure translates to a poor rating for sustainability. Asian economic powerhouse Hong Kong performs well for environmental sustainability and affordability, but a lack of national resources means security is a notable problem. ASEAN nation Singapore suffers from a similar challenge.

Adding to the pressure of this delicate balance is the growing global thirst for electricity, where in 2018 alone demand increased by 4% . This is a vital global juggling act, and there are three balls in the air to manage.


Energy Security

Energy security is defined as the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price. It was once a question heavily concerned with fuel supply, but now, flexible grid infrastructure and diversified energy ecosystems are a fundamental part of this equation.

Energy security is defined as the uninterrupted availability of energy sources

In today’s world, the rise of renewable and distributed energy sources is affecting traditional power grid systems. The emergence of ‘prosumers’, consumers generating their own energy with excess sold back to the grid, presents a further challenge. Grid infrastructure must evolve to meet changing demand in a more dynamic generation landscape, with smart technologies such as self-repairing grids an important part of energy security.  Thanks to smart energy ecosystems, the  future grid is focused on delivering fast-response while retaining system reliability and power quality.

Battery storage will be an integral element of ensuring a fast-response and reliable supply from renewable energy. In fact, Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts the energy storage market will grow to equal 7% of total installed power capacity globally by 2040.

Traditional fuels will also continue to play an important role in ensuring energy security, particularly for countries with limited access to renewable sources such as wind or geothermal power. Excess capacity in traditional fossil-fuel power stations remains an essential part of ensuring adequate generation capacity to meet power needs in many countries, particularly during periods of peak demand. A balanced, diversified fuel mix which includes renewable energy while avoiding overreliance on any one fuel source will be crucial in these circumstances.

Energy Accessibility

A secure electricity supply should be supported by widespread available and affordable access that reflects the means of the citizens and community.

The world has made significant progress on enhancing access to electricity over recent decades. The International Energy Agency estimates that Southeast Asia’s electrification rates have increased from around 60% in 2002 to roughly 90% today. That’s a powerful story of success, but one which needs to be supported by a continued drive to ensure affordable access for all.

Grid infrastructure is an important part of ensuring this access, yet the ‘final mile’ of rural electrification projects consistently run up against geographical or economic barriers in extending established grids. Distributed renewable energy projects such as microgrid solutions are increasingly offering an innovative new opportunity to meet these electrification needs. These small, self-sustaining microgrids operate independent of the wider power system, creating local solutions that fit local needs. India has been trialling this microgrid model to tackle its own electrification needs, with studies revealing significant challenges still to be overcome in delivering reliable, affordable supply.

Private and public bodies must work together to ensure affordable electricity access is maintained in delivering sustainable, secure solutions. The cost of solar energy now competes favourably against fossil fuels globally, with the benchmark price of solar falling 84% since 2010. Malaysia’s Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC) highlighted these shifting costs in Malaysia’s own accelerating adoption of solar. Singapore is taking that innovation further, exploring large-scale floating solar farms to balance available land with the push for greater renewable energy. Meanwhile, the Philippines developed Southeast Asia’s largest wind farm in Burgos, designed to meet the growing energy demands of the Luzon grid system.

Balancing affordable electricity for citizens as part of this switch is vital. In assessing affordability we must look at the future costs of production in long-term power contracts, while also recognising the established power production agreements in place.

Upgrading grid infrastructure to adapt to the intermittent supply of renewable energy will also require significant financial investment. This will be compounded by the need to include a two-way energy infrastructure that allows consumers to both consume electricity, but also feed it back into the grid as part of distributed home-generated renewables such as Malaysia’s successful solar Net Metering initiative. Managing these costs to balance an appropriate electricity supply with relative affordability is an evolving challenge for the world’s economies.

Energy Sustainability – A Promise of Change

The need for a more environmentally positive electricity landscape was highlighted with the release of the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2018 special report. Reducing carbon emissions is vital to the future of a sustainable planet, with energy production playing an important part alongside other major industries. Growing public focus also adds an important element of customer expectation in sustainable energy supplies.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) projects that renewable energy must expand from 15% of total primary energy supply in 2015 to more than 65% by 2050 in order to meet the committed goal of keeping global warming below 2 degrees. Renewable energy has enjoyed significant global success over recent years, growing from 1,136 GW of installed capacity in 2009 to more than 2,350 GW in 2018, now accounting for around a third of global power capacity.

Malaysia has stated its target of achieving 20% of renewables in the generation capacity by 2025, up from 2% today. Other nations in the region have set their own goals, with the ASEAN bloc targeting renewables to account for 23% of primary energy by 2025.

A renewables-only landscape is not feasible for many nations with current technological and economic barriers

The much-celebrated success of Costa Rica’s 100% renewable electricity generation reveals how a diversified renewable energy mix, with access to ample hydro and geothermal reserves, is crucial to full renewable delivery. A renewables-only landscape is not feasible for many nations with current technological and economic barriers, with intermittent supply from sources such as solar and wind requiring significant expansion of smart grid and battery storage technologies. This challenge is amplified significantly in nations like Malaysia, where wind is not considered a viable energy source.

In Malaysia, initiatives by MESTECC to embrace the nation’s solar power potential have seen the greatest success, with both Large-Scale Solar and Net Metering leading the push for renewable energy additions. Neighbouring Indonesia is looking to embrace its substantial geothermal energy potential, aiming to produce 5,000 MW of geothermal energy by 2025. Thailand continues its push as regional leader in renewable energy, revealing plans to ensure renewables such as wind and solar make up 35% of all electricity generated by 2035.

Projects driven by President Obama’s Administration in the United States revealed the substantial success that renewable initiatives can deliver. Between 2008-2016 wind power in the US more than quadrupled, and utility-scale solar increased 40-fold! The overall result of this energy transition was a reduction in CO2 emissions from power production in the United States of 23% over 8 years, saving 1,821 million metric tonnes of CO2.

Energy efficiency must also play an important part in meeting sustainability goals. Informed consumers should be supported through initiatives such as those demonstrated by TNB’s Home Energy Report, while the global rollout of smart meters provides a further insight for consumers on how to reduce their own energy usage.

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