In our recent comment, "system reboot", we offered the government the benefit of the doubt. We assumed a sincerity of intent - they still wished to decarbonise the energy system - even if we questioned the tools they were choosing for the job.
However, then came the Autumn Statement, and the Comprehensive Spending Review - and in particular what wasn't in it, but rather what was quietly revealed in a two sentence statement to the markets later that afternoon: the scrapping of the £1bn CCS programme. This was swiftly juxtaposed with the CCC's recommendation for the fifth carbon budget and the very obvious shortcomings of the power sector to meet it.
We can all argue about how credible a viable CCS solution for gas and coal plant was going to be on cost grounds. Indeed, this was an interesting intellectual exercise when we knew the case may be proven one way or another through execution at a live plant. There was certainly a real risk that CCS retrofits might have failed. Or they may have succeeded and seeded accelerated deployment of solutions into industry, accentuating the decarbonisation benefit of the power sector trials. Now - for the profit of a short-term saving - we will never know.
The opportunity cost of the political message is almost as large as that of the lost option on the technology. Four years wasted, on the cusp of making a decision in the competition between White Rose and Peterhead, and a day in advance of the CCC's recommendation on the Fifth Carbon Budget, the timing will deliver maximum negative impact to wider investment sentiment.
Following plenty of government heavyweights enthusiastically throwing their hat into the CCS ring, the u-turn is another chilling message to investors not to take on face value the previous words and actions of government. How do those being courted by government to enter into similar a technology competition for Small Modular Reactors (SMR), or to build new CCGT or offshore wind feel about a government that can lead a bride down the aisle only to abandon her at the altar?
In any event, the shortfall in CCS in DECC's emissions projections, which already are shy of the Fifth carbon budget, will have to be taken up elsewhere if the budget is to be adopted as the CCC recommends.
Could this come from nuclear SMR? We should not simply write off SMR but the cautionary point is that it is in its early days from a policy exploration perspective, certainly when compared to CCS. There are also real concerns abounding about the starting cost and speed of cost reductions, and timing of deployment.
Offshore wind could pick up any slack but this relies on achieving cost reduction targets and government lifting the ceiling of the 10GW ambition of new projects to be built during the next decade. In its latest Energy and Emissions projections, DECC expects 3.5GW of gas and coal CCS to be providing 23TWh of power by 2030. To replace this ambition, with offshore wind we could construct 5.8GW. This would generate the same amount of power as the "lost" CCS with a similar carbon emissions impact, but would be cheaper to deploy. Given the pipeline in offshore wind, this is theoretically deliverable but of course relies on the correct policy signals being sent by government, the associated money being made available in regular and timely fashion, and crucially, developers trusting government won't abandon the field somewhere down the line. On the current prospectus those are all uncertain variables.
Meanwhile, onshore wind and solar firms must be incredulous. For the same £250mn of new funding being directed particularly to research and development of SMR the government could procure several GWs of cheap, mature and proven renewables in an established auction under the CfD. For example, we estimate that at a clearing price of £80/MWh the government could procure 2.4GW of onshore wind for £250mn. Possibly more if the CfD was reformed for those technologies most proximate to grid parity to deliver a 'floor' price.
Of course, these mature technologies are resilient and may well scratch out some kind of future. But with wholesale prices as low as they are, the concept of surviving without subsidy is as ridiculous for them as it is for any other form of generation. Why they are being singled out is ideological, and down to little else.
Finally, whichever way we look at it, conceding the option of government subsidised CCS in a world where government say they want new build unabated gas as a 'bridge' to a lower carbon future must undermine confidence in government's sincerity. Either government do not yet understand the limited life and/or loads of unabated gas stations in the 2030s in a low-carbon system as prescribed by the CCC - although their own projections of load factors for gas in 2030 suggest this is not the case - or they will privately give up on that system altogether. With extrinsically driven peak power values hard to model, the alternative option is that investors in new unabated CCGT will need to be given a subsidy rich enough in the next ten years to reduce the relevance of lower loads in the longer term to their investment case. However, that could prove a very expensive route indeed.
So there is a looming risk that during the last years of this decade and the early years of the next, having already scythed at a range of hard won options in renewables and CCS, we will talk ourselves into higher loads for unabated gas fired power, on cost and security of supply grounds, for far longer than the government's emissions projections currently portray.
A world where unabated CCGT becomes much more an end in itself and not the transitionary means is now much more likely. Great news for gas plant owners of course, but a far cry from the road to decarbonisation as the CCC would now have it.