Trade-offs are Inevitable: Considerations for Our Energy System

By Evelyn Teel

It is easy to think of energy as simply a commodity that makes our lives easier – by fueling our cars, keeping our homes comfortable, and powering our many devices. However, what if we sought to understand the more fundamental role energy plays in our lives? How would this reframe the conversation around the conflicting demands on our energy systems?

These questions and more are at the heart of Kenneth P. Green’s book Abundant Energy: The Fuel of Human Flourishing. In this small but dense tome, he discusses a variety of topics and encourages the reader to think more deeply about his or her own values and priorities regarding energy systems and the policies that govern them.

First, a few caveats. The book is nearly a decade old (published in 2011), so some of its content and assertions are either out of date or have been proven incorrect in the intervening years. The author also largely sidesteps around climate change issues, which have become more prominent in the past decade. However, this does not diminish the value in understanding the overarching points in the book.

Green starts from the premise that external energy sources are so intrinsically linked with human lives that we have, in fact, evolved along with our use of them. The first power source our human ancestors were able to harness – fire – instigated evolutionary changes that shaped the future of our species. Much of what it means to be human, from our cognitive abilities to our physical structure, our digestive system to our hormonal system to our social structures, evolved in concert with our ability to harness fire and, later, more sophisticated forms of energy.

The book focuses on the topics noted below and encourages readers to think critically about what we take for granted in our energy system, how we can improve that system, and what trade-offs we are willing to make to facilitate those improvements.

Energy Affordability

Whereas we often think of our energy costs simply in terms of our utility bills or how much it costs to fill up our gas tank, the reality is that energy costs impact nearly everything we buy and use. There are, of course, direct costs, like electricity or natural gas service at our house or gasoline for the car. There are also indirect costs, which include the energy used to produce all of the goods and services we consume. There is an inverse relationship between income and the percentage of income spent on direct and indirect energy costs – disproportionately so. This means that any increase in energy prices is borne by those least able to absorb the additional costs. This relationship holds true not only within the United States, but also worldwide – poorer nations are more affected by increasing energy costs than are richer ones.

Energy Reliability

Most of the time, we take for granted that when we need electricity, natural gas, propane, gasoline, or other forms or sources of energy, we’ll be able to access them easily. When these systems fail, we are presented with a stark reminder of how essential they are to our lives.

In the case of the 2003 East Coast blackout, millions of Americans and Canadians were left without power for up to two days. Not just electricity was out – communication and transportation systems were inoperable. Other utilities, such as water, were affected. The event cost the economy billions of dollars. The 2003 blackout is an extreme example, but even much shorter blackouts can have negative effects and incur huge costs.

All of this underscores the importance of energy reliability. Consistent availability of power is what enables our society to function. When applying this thinking to fuel sources and how we can ensure energy availability, it is important to understand the capacity factor of various sources – i.e., the percentage of time a particular type of generation operates at full capacity. Some fuel sources can generate full power nearly full time (such as nuclear), while others operate more intermittently (such as solar). For more information about capacity factor, please check out two of our previous blog posts: and

Energy and the Environment

The majority of the world’s pollution comes from developing nations, and the best way to help curtail their emissions may be to help those countries expand their economies. Green argues that for every environmental resource – energy-related and otherwise – there is an optimal usage level that balances sustainability and economic growth. A society will generally overshoot that level at first, then correct and moderate its usage over time. The key factor in ensuring that a society can moderate its consumption of a given resource is whether it can afford to do so. With economic growth comes the ability to focus on priorities apart from basic survival, as well as the capacity to develop new, more efficient technologies.

Energy System Inertia and Momentum

All systems have momentum. Once a decision is made to proceed in one direction, each progressive step makes it harder and harder to backtrack. This is resonantly true in our energy system. Our electric generation capacity has been built based on certain criteria, and is intended to last for decades. The workforce has been trained within specific parameters. Our society has developed technology, architecture, manufacturing, and much more around the energy system that is currently available. This is not to say that the way we generate, distribute, and use energy must remain static. It does, however, require an understanding of the secondary effects of any changes, and an evaluation of the cumulative costs associated with those changes.

Green also touches on the topics of energy independence and security and the danger of unintended consequences. He highlights the various trade-offs we would need to be willing to make in order to ensure energy independence, such as ramping up fuel extraction in the US and accepting the environmental consequences of increased energy production at home.

Finally, every decision can (and likely will) have unintended consequences. In the realm of energy policy, these unintended consequences can be huge, affecting the lives of millions of people both domestically and abroad. Perhaps the best way to fully understand, evaluate, and resolve these unintended consequences is to test many, varied possible solutions to a given issue. Implementing broad, sweeping solutions without sufficient testing can bring consequences that may do more harm than the original solution was intended to solve.


The environment, climate change, and energy policy are hot topics these days, and it is important to have a general understanding of the different priorities and trade-offs in the energy realm. Which is more important: reducing carbon emissions; keeping energy costs low, particularly for the sake of our less affluent neighbors; ensuring power is available reliably; something else entirely; or a combination of all of these? Identifying (personal) priorities or guidelines for thinking about energy changes can help focus our thinking on individual topics. This book certainly does not cover every aspect of these issues and the many others we need to better understand (nor could any one book do so). However, it is a good starting point to understand several factors regarding energy policy.

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