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A potential 3,800 km-long clean energy solution for the UK

19/10/2022

6 min read

Aerial view over solar farm Photo: Adobe Stock
For the 3,500 annual hours of sunshine the Guelmim Oued Noun region receives each year, the UK only receives 1,500 hours

Photo: Adobe Stock

The intermittency of renewable energy sources is one of their biggest challenges. But long-distance renewable projects connecting areas with reliably high levels of sun and wind to energy markets could become an important solution to this, writes Abby Hockman, Marketing Communications Manager for Xlinks.

The proposed Xlinks Morocco-UK Power Project would be a new electricity generation facility entirely powered by solar and wind energy combined with a battery storage facility. Located in Morocco’s renewable energy rich region of Guelmim Oued Noun, it would be connected exclusively to the UK via 3,800 km HVDC subsea cables.

 

A ‘first of a kind’, the Xlinks project is expected to generate 10.5 GW of zero carbon electricity from the sun and wind to deliver 3.6 GW of reliable energy for an average of 20+ hours a day. This would be enough to provide low-cost, clean power to over 7mn British homes by 2030. Once complete, the project would be capable of supplying 8% of the UK’s electricity needs.

 

The scale of the £18bn Xlinks project mirrors the global drive to reach net zero. Only through a collective approach, with many innovative and creative solutions explored, will there be any hope of achieving the global targets called for in the Paris Agreement. If it seems ambitious, it is. Nevertheless, one can only imagine the reaction when the first transatlantic telecommunications cable was introduced, but look at the network now, embedded into everyday life without most of us giving it a second thought.

 

Xlinks intends to use existing, proven technology for the project, with a 200 km2 solar photovoltaic (PV) farm that would track the sun for maximum output. Plans include the installation of 12mn solar panels and 530 wind turbines, although it should be noted that optimisation of the overall site would continue to ensure the best use of available space and materials.

 

Far smaller projects are already up and running in the UK, connecting to France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Northern Ireland and Ireland. Many of these projects are in partnership with National Grid, with further connections in the pipeline. Once operational, the Morocco-UK Power Project could unlock the potential of long-distance projects worldwide. 


How would it work? 
The project's innovation can be found in the two long-distance bipoles set to connect generation to distribution. If the project is constructed, each bipole would be made of two 3,800 km subsea HVDC cables, requiring a total of 15,200 km of subsea cable to be produced for the project. Once ashore, the cables would connect via two 1.8 GW grid connections to National Grid’s transmission network.

 

There is, of course, the matter of producing the 15,200 km of subsea cable that is beyond current global manufacturing capacity. A new HVDC subsea cable manufacturing company, XLCC, has been set up to fill the gap in the market. XLCC is planning to build multiple facilities in the UK to support long-distance renewable projects, with Xlinks as its first customer. It has already received planning permission for the first factory in Hunterston, Scotland, which could bring some 900 jobs to an area that has been deeply affected by the decommissioning of the Hunterston B nuclear power station. Discussions are underway for a second site in a former shipyard-building community in north-eastern England.

 

cable laying vessel at seaXLCC has commissioned cable-laying vessels that could provide cable laying, repairing and protection services for other projects
Photo: XLCC 


The cable laying vessels that XLCC is commissioning will enable the company to provide a suite of services for clients, including cable laying, repair and protection. Its factories and vessels could support UK energy projects for many years into the future and provide an export capability for global markets. For a vessel worthy of such a mission, the world’s largest cable laying ship is soon to be commissioned. Salt Ship Design has collaborated on basic design, and cable handling studied with MAATS Tech and Global Marine. V Group will partner with XLCC for technical development and construction.  

Advantages of long-distance renewable projects 
As global conversation turns to energy security, there is no doubt that domestic wind and solar power is needed. However, the UK wind supply is often highest during weakest demand, and vice versa. Generation peaks at night create pressure on the transmission networks. This mismatch of resource and demand leads to price spikes, with a net effect of a higher total cost of electricity to the UK economy and consumer, further showing the impact a strategic diversity of supply could have if it is the right solution. Xlinks Project Director Richard Hardy says: ‘The more diversified the supply of energy is, the more resilience you have.’

 

When the wind does not blow in the UK, Xlinks could provide reliable renewable energy by utilising Morocco’s consistent, daily convection currents that increase in the afternoon and further into the evening. The regional trade winds are driven by the temperature differential of the Atlantic Ocean and African continent.

 

When the sun does not shine in the UK, Xlinks could provide solar intensity greater than any European country – and double that of the UK. For the 3,500 annual hours of sunshine the Guelmim Oued Noun region receives each year, the UK only receives 1,500 hours. In January–March, solar panels in Morocco should be able to generate up to five times more power than those in the UK, when it is needed most.

 

Coupled with a planned 20 GWh/5 GW battery storage facility in Morocco, variable UK generation would be supported with stability of supply by the project. The large storage capabilities would be particularly valuable during peak daily demand, especially in the face of potential rolling blackouts that have been publicised in the papers in recent weeks.

 

When the sun does not shine in the UK, Xlinks could provide solar intensity greater than any European country – and double that of the UK.

 

In the current global climate, it may be tempting to consider abandoning net zero goals and corresponding milestones, such as decarbonising the UK electricity sector by 2035. However, there is an opportunity to push forward quickly with long-distance generation for a win-win energy secure and net zero scenario.

 

As the Morocco-UK Power Project comes online as a partner alongside domestic supply, it may, somewhat ironically, provide an opportunity to create and utilise more generation within the UK. Projects such as this could help balance the supply and demand in the UK market. This would enable a higher portion of variable renewable energy to be connected to the UK’s network without exposing consumers to higher electricity prices when wind output is lower.

 

The Xlinks project should have a larger knock-on effect for the economy as a whole; increasing supply enables the UK to become a net exporter of energy. Rather than importing electricity through existing interconnectors when wind output in the UK is low, the country could better manage supply and demand, and export power when wind output is higher.

 

Renewable generation has never been cheaper, and whilst the UK’s nuclear projects take much longer to get up and running, Xlinks could provide an opportunity to move at pace at nearly half the cost.

 

What else links Morocco and the UK? 
The positive effects from Xlinks’ inaugural project would not simply extend to the UK.

 

Morocco and the UK have a shared history of trade and collaboration. In June 2021, the UK agreed a partnership agreement affirming post-Brexit continuity of trade and exchange. The Xlinks Morocco-UK Power Project would strategically build on this relationship and highlight how Morocco can collaborate in its net zero energy mission with partners across the world.  

Morocco has become an international renewable energy leader over the last 10 years, with a framework that fosters renewable energy investment. For the Morocco-UK Power Project, at least 10,000 jobs could be created in-country during construction, of which 2,000 would likely become permanent, and new social and economic development opportunities would benefit local populations, as well as opportunities for collaboration with the UK in areas such as training, education and industry.

 

Xlinks’ ambition is that a large portion of materials for the generation site could be manufactured in Morocco, fostering the development of a local, export-driven renewable industry. A key criterion for the site selection in Morocco was ensuring the project would not negatively impact Morocco’s own ability to transition to net zero.

 

Wider benefits   
As the UK and wider world look to secure energy independence and continued economic growth, Xlinks could reduce the cost of electricity for consumers and industry. A new entrant in the market increasing availability of supply would decrease costs for those consuming it. Access to lower prices should help to keep the UK competitive on a global scale for businesses, which could be the difference between importing goods and attracting businesses to set up shop and start exporting.

 

Taking a step back, looking at diversifying supply, energy security, renewable generation and the wider economy, the benefits are complementary. The knock-on effect of projects such as the Morocco-UK Power Project would be wins not only for the environment and reaching net zero, but also for necessary economic growth and positively impact individual households.

 

It is only a matter of time until projects like Xlinks are as commonplace in everyday life as subsea telecommunications cables.