By Julian Singer
The UK government’s recently published Energy Security Plan opens by stating that “This Plan sets out…to ensure that the UK is more energy independent, secure and resilient”, and continues “We want our energy to be cheap, clean and British”.
It is therefore surprising to read thirty-five pages later that the government is interested in the Xlinks project “…a proposed large scale onshore wind, solar and battery electricity generation site in Morocco that would exclusively supply power to the GB grid via high voltage direct current subsea cables”.
Xlinks is a UK company based in Essex that has developed the idea of a huge generating plant that it claims will deliver 3.6GW of power for an average of 20 hours per day. A coastal area in southern Morocco was chosen because of its high solar irradiation (twice that in the UK on average and more than twice in winter, and 20 per cent greater than in Spain) and longer days, as well as high winds near the coast. A key difference with most wind and solar farms is the effort made to maintain power output at peak UK consumption times, i.e. early morning and especially early evening.
At the heart will be 200 sq km of solar panels (the area inside London’s north and south circular roads is 314 sq km). These will track the sun’s trajectory so as to maximise output at peak demand times, in particular. The wind speed driving the wind turbines is determined by the difference in temperature of the Atlantic Ocean and that of the land mass, and therefore conveniently increases through the afternoon and early evening when the land is at its hottest. To smooth the output even further the installation will include batteries capable of storing 20 GWh of electricity at a maximum power of 5GW.
Thus, overall, the project is expected to deliver slightly more power than the still-to-be-completed Hinckley Point C nuclear power station but for a slightly shorter period (3.6 GW for 20 hours per day versus 3.26GW continuously). The company claims it could supply 8 per cent of UK power by 2030.
There remains the problem of delivering the power to the UK. For this, four large, high-voltage direct-current cables will be buried under the sea bed and run along the coasts of Morocco, Spain and France before going up the Bristol Channel to near Westward Ho in North Devon. To manufacture the cables, Xlinks plans to set up a factory in Hunterston, Ayrshire, with subsidiary sites on Teeeside and Port Talbot. The hope is that the expertise developed will allow the UK to become a major exporter of such cables.
Once on land the power will be converted from direct to alternating current and added to the national grid at a nearby sub-station. National Grid have apparently agreed to this, and were involved in selecting the best landing point.
Xlinks proposes to raise the required funds privately but, like offshore wind farms, the company wants a defined Contract for Difference from the government so as to attract more investors and reduce the interest rate. Octopus Energy, a UK energy supplier that joined the project in May 2022, believes that the strike price should be around £48 per MWh, nearly half that of Hinckley Point and comparable to offshore wind projects.
You can see the attraction for the government. It is almost like getting another nuclear power station but without the regulatory hassle or the obligation to find investors, and much sooner (on-line “by the end of the decade”, says Xlinks). Lord David Howell, Secretary of State for Energy in 1980 sees it as realism on the part of a government that is struggling to meet forecast electricity demand: “So it is to enormous projects such as Xlinks….that the government is now being compelled to turn. This is why it is encouraging to see the Moroccan project right there in the middle of Britain’s strategy document”
But there are clearly dangers. Morocco is a kingdom in which the King holds considerable executive and legislative power; for example, he can issue decrees that have the force of law. All the more alarming, therefore, when the Economist published an article in April describing a King that had hardly been seen in public for the last five years, and who spent most of his time out of the country in the company of a German kickboxer and his brothers. Morocco may have escaped the turmoil of the Arab Spring but there is a definite risk that it will suffer constitutional upheaval in the near future and a longer-term possibility that it could be taken over by an anti-Western faction.
One might also question why this large supply of energy is not sent to nearby Spain to join the Spanish and European grids, to which the UK has access through different connectors. Maybe Spain and the EU are more sceptical about the project. In any case that would put the UK at the mercy of the EU supply and, above all, its prices. That, of course, is definitely not part of the Energy Security Plan. But then why is supply from Europe considered less secure than that from Morocco?