I once found myself torn between an Alfa Romeo (stylish but quite likely to be unreliable) and a Honda (fast, faultless but rather dull). But I dithered until I finally ended up with the worst of both worlds as my sensible VW became problematic. And I was never fully satisfied with the hastily-chosen replacement.
So, if your life is plagued by similar first-world problems, spare a thought for those responsible for setting national energy policy. For they have to wrestle with a complex trilemma of three competing factors: price, sustainability, security.
Energy needs to be cheap – otherwise households suffer and businesses go under. It needs to be clean to avoid harming the environment. And it needs to be secure so that external factors, from bad weather to global conflicts, can’t cut our supply.
All three of those are vital – always. And, yes, trilemma is a real word. And the energy trilemma is defined by the World Energy Council. I don’t just make this stuff up.
Energy transition policy
Since the 2008 Climate Change Act, UK energy policy has been heavily focussed around a single goal: reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s been a similar situation across much of Europe, where politicians have been proudly shuttering their coal plants and putting up windfarms and solar panels to replace them.
Their logic was that any shortfall could be addressed by importing gas. Let’s face it, they under-estimated the shortfall big style.
But there are drawbacks to addressing only one aspect of the trilemma. Bills have long been ramping up to subsidise renewables and to ensure fossil fuel back-up.
They then went through the roof once Putin’s tanks rolled into Ukraine, plunging many into fuel poverty and pushing businesses over the edge. And things could have been even worse: energy supplies got so precarious that were it not for a handful of remaining coal-fired power stations, the lights might have gone out last winter.
End of the ‘Thunbergian era’
A re-balance of the trilemma has already begun. Over in Germany, once bitterly-opposed LNG import terminals have been signed-off to end dependence on the Russian pipeline supply.
New coal mines are literally getting bulldozed through. And support for the once-powerful Greens is collapsing at state and federal level.
Even the Thunbergian era itself could be drawing to a close with the Swedish authorities seemingly tiring of Greta’s disruption.
But if the trilemma returned to Europe last year, it finally made it back to the UK this summer.
Rishi Sunak’s recent visit to Aberdeen looks highly significant as it marks a turning point in UK energy policy.
The backing for hundreds of new offshore licences and for the major Acorn CCS project confirms that domestic hydrocarbons will remain part of the energy mix even as we head towards Net Zero.
All that remains now is to review the punitive 75% tax rate that stifles offshore development and the job’s a good ‘un.
With the next general election on the horizon, we’re starting to see some clear energy policy differences emerging between the Conservatives and their Labour and SNP opponents.
‘More boldness’ needed
More boldness is going be required. The UK government has set tough targets for transport, no new petrol cars after 2030, and for heating, no new domestic gas boilers after 2025.
But targets are the easy bit, if these are going to be more than electric dreams, we can’t delay any longer on building more power generation (renewables and nuclear, not either-or), more energy storage and a beefed-up grid.
None of that comes cheap, though, and big projects often run into heavy resistance, spooking politicians. Such factors ground the UK nuclear programme to a halt in the eighties and we have been (literally) paying the ever since.
But why the recent change of tack? Perhaps it’s those looming deadlines. Or perhaps politicians are sensing that whilst voters still care about the environment, the public mood could be shifting.
With interest rates creeping up and impacting mortgage payments, households need to see energy costs coming down.
Folks in industrial areas want to see governments get on with creating local jobs for the next generation, whether that’s in oil & gas, renewables or nuclear.
Meanwhile, opinion polls suggest that the public has never been wholly impressed with protestors and a summer of disruption has done little improve matters.
That’s a shame because environmentalists risk losing their ability to shape the trilemma via their actions: Greenpeace’s stunt at the Prime Minister’s Yorkshire home saw their UK government ties cut.
We might not be too impressed with some of Insulate Britain’s direct tactics but it’s never been more important to actually get on and insulate Britain.