Lowering global emissions means evaluating clean energy holistically

Lowering global emissions means evaluating clean energy holistically

As the world advances, more people are getting used to a higher standard of living. This is a good thing! It means quality of life is on an upward trend worldwide. 

This trend also means more energy demand, requiring new energy production of all kinds to fuel our growing needs. 

Making sure our energy is clean

A changing climate has put a focus on how we produce and consume energy. As demand for energy increases, companies, citizens, and governments around the world are looking at new options to meet energy demand. 

The question is: how do we meet growing energy needs? How do we do so in a way that preserves our planet? How do we make sure more people can afford to improve their quality of life?

In this article, we’ll introduce a concept known as the energy trilemma. We’ll also look at how different energy sources fit within the energy trilemma. By the end of the article, it should be clear that building a sustainable energy future will need a mix of sources. 

What is the energy trilemma?

Our energy system is a complex ecosystem. There are many factors we need to pay attention to and manage. 

The energy trilemma is a balanced assessment of three, often conflicting, priorities:

  • Security (or reliability)
  • Affordability
  • Sustainability 

Let’s explore these pillars.

Energy security

Energy security is about making sure we have enough energy to meet current and future demand. It’s also about a source’s ability to respond and recover from supply disruptions. 

An important consideration is peak heating or cooling demand and the ability of an energy source to ramp up or down to match energy needs as they change throughout the day and season.  

How easy is it to store the energy? How intermittent is the energy source? Does this method produce enough energy to meet our population’s needs? 

These questions help us evaluate the reliability and security of different energy sources. They’re also part of the reason we don’t rely on any one energy source. Having a diverse energy mix helps us mitigate outages and ensure we can meet energy demand. 

Energy affordability

Affordability is crucial to understanding the viability of our energy sources. If an energy source is too expensive, households and businesses won’t be able to rely on it. For energy to support long term economic growth, people need to be able to afford it.

Understanding energy costs is about more than the cost of producing the energy. There are many factors that can affect price. For instance, if new infrastructure needs building, those capital costs will factor into the price.

Energy sustainability 

Humans use energy and create waste. All our activity has an impact on our environment. We see those impacts in the form of climate change. 

Sustainability is about making energy choices that manage and reduce our environmental impact. The focus here is often on greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants; however, it’s also important to consider factors like water use and land displacement.

Just like affordability, sustainability isn’t only about the immediate impacts of using energy. We need to think about the impacts of the sources’ entire life cycle. 

How the trilemma affects energy policy

Global energy policies have focused on sustainability in recent years. But as of 2020, we’re seeing new priorities take precedence. 

We’ve seen a global pandemic trigger an economic recession and sky-rocketing inflation. We’ve also seen an energy crisis in Europe, triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These events have changed geo-political perspectives and focus on where energy is sourced from has become key.

What are governments realizing? Sustainability can’t happen without considering affordability and security. Policies need to balance all three priorities.

Evaluating our current energy options 

In this section, we’ll look at energy sources through each of the pillars of the energy trilemma.

Natural gas

Natural gas made up 38% of Canada’s total primary use energy consumption in 2021. This was the highest among all types of fuels. We use natural gas to heat buildings, generate electricity, and run industrial processes.


Natural gas is one of the most reliable energy sources we have, providing tremendous flexibility for managing peak demand and grid balancing. In addition, natural gas is fast to ramp production up and down to respond to changing demand.

Another thing that improves natural gas’ security is its storage ability. Canada’s natural gas storage is abundant and available, allowing us to keep it in reserves when demand is low and save it for when demand is high. 

Also, most of the natural gas delivery and storage infrastructure is underground. This makes it much more resilient to damage from extreme and abnormal weather. 

Depending on where in the world you are, geopolitics can affect the natural gas supply. We’ve seen this happen as Europe has shifted away from Russian gas. Diversifying with liquefied natural gas (LNG) has helped offset these impacts. 


Natural gas is Canada’s most affordable source of energy. Yes, its robust infrastructure needs regular maintenance, but this doesn’t take massive investments. The abundance of our natural gas reserves means there is always enough supply to meet demand. 

These factors keep natural gas costs low. 


Natural gas is a fossil fuel that emits carbon dioxide; however, compared to all other fossil fuels— it has the lowest emissions intensity. 

In fact, the intensity of natural gas emissions is 50% lower than that of coal, and about 15% lower than diesel and gasoline. 

Blending renewable natural gas and hydrogen into the system further reduces its emissions. 

Solar & Wind

Harnessing the sun and the wind is another way we generate electricity. Solar and wind energy made up less than 8% of Canada’s primary energy use in 2021. Together, they make up about 20% of Canada’s electric generation capacity.


Relying on wind and solar power can present challenges without backup options. Without adequate battery storage, these sources put us at the mercy of the weather.

Have you ever tried to fly a kite on a day without wind? Or plan an outdoor summer party, only to have it rain? The intermittent nature of—well, nature—means less reliability than other energy sources. Especially if demand peaks at a time when these sources are unavailable (e.g., the sun goes down at night).

In 2021, 6% of Canada’s electricity was generated by wind and solar, despite making up 12% of the total capacity. In other words, we only used 50% of our solar and wind plants’ production capacity.

The vulnerability of electricity delivery infrastructure hurts the security of solar and wind. For instance, overhead wires are vulnerable to damage from extreme weather. This issue is not unique to wind and solar power.

One advantage for the security of wind and solar power—geopolitics don’t affect them. Solar panels and wind farms tend to be widely dispersed, so they’re less vulnerable from fuel supply issues but do have supply chain limitations, like other imported goods. 


Capital and operating costs of solar panels and wind turbines have come down in recent years. But the full cost is more than the initial purchase.

We can’t use wind and solar energy directly. We need to transform them into electricity, which includes the costs associated with infrastructure and delivery. Infrastructure maintenance makes solar and wind generated electricity the most expensive energy source almost everywhere in Canada. 


Solar and wind energy are both renewable and non-emitting energy sources. This makes them great choices for offsetting carbon emissions.

However, this does not mean they’re perfectly sustainable. When we look at the full supply chain, solar panels and wind turbines need precious and rare earth metals. Mining these resources can disrupt natural ecosystems and have significant environmental impacts.


Hydroelectricity harnesses the energy of moving water to generate power with dams. In 2021, hydroelectric energy made up 10% of Canada’s total primary energy use. Altogether, hydro power makes up 55% of Canada’s electric generation capacity. 


Hydroelectricity offers high reliability when compared to intermittent sources like solar and wind. This means it can handle both large base and variable energy loads.

Unfortunately, hydro doesn’t work everywhere. Building effective hydro plants requires specific geography. Certain conditions must be met for a site to be suitable for a hydroelectric dam.


Hydroelectric dams have some of the highest upfront capital costs. Look no further than the Site C Dam, currently under construction in British Columbia. Currently at an estimated cost of $16 billion—about $7 billion over budget.

Like wind and solar power, hydro power also comes with all the costs of the electrical grid.


Like wind and solar, hydro is a renewable and non-emitting energy source. Moving water exists. Harnessing it to produce electricity makes sense and lowers greenhouse gas emissions. 

Unfortunately, building hydro dams can have serious environmental impacts. Hydro dams displace a significant amount of land and also divert waterways which can disrupt wildlife. 

Balancing our energy future

If you’ve read this far, you know that no one of these energy sources can meet global energy needs on its own. We need them to work together. 

Renewables help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions by harnessing the power of nature. But without a mix that includes natural gas, we’d be in trouble. 

Natural gas allows us to afford to live comfortably and keep innovating. It gives us reliable access to energy year-round and helps keep costs down. Finally, innovations in gaseous energy are making natural gas even cleaner. 

Canada’s sustainable future needs natural gas. 

If a sustainable energy mix is important to you, raise your voice for energy. Visit our Take action page or share this story on social media.