‘We’ve lost a year’: Political unrest delays UK-Saharan energy link

An £18billion project to connect Britain to a huge wind and solar farm in the Sahara via an undersea cable has been delayed for at least a year due to political unrest in Westminster.

Energy startup Xlinks hopes to deliver 8% of Britain’s energy supply through a 3,800km (2,360 mile) cable linking Morocco to the UK, powering 7 million homes by 2030.

The project was expected to start producing electricity by 2027. However, that target date now seems unlikely.

Xlinks executive chairman Sir Dave Lewis, a former chief executive of Tesco, has warned that recent political unrest which has seen three prime ministers in less than six months has stalled its progress.

He has tried to secure a “contract for difference” from the government – a mechanism in which public subsidies are used to offer low-carbon generators, such as wind farms, a fixed price for electricity. The arrangement aims to encourage investment by making income more predictable.

The proposed route of the Morocco-UK submarine cable.
The proposed route of the Morocco-UK submarine cable. Photography: Xlinks

Lewis told the Guardian: ‘We spent a lot of time with the then Business Secretary [Kwasi Kwarteng] who said: “We like it very much but it has to go through the Treasury.” There was a review with the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and the Commercial Department, which was very positive.

“Then we came back to them to start the detail and the political world exploded and suddenly everything stopped. And everyone has changed, so it’s kind of like you’re starting over.

“Time is important for the UK to achieve its net zero ambitions, to secure energy supply and reduce bills. We have lost a year.

Xlinks was founded in 2019 by its managing director, Simon Morrish, who developed the Ground Control environmental services business across the UK.

When the Morocco-UK link is completed, Xlinks expects to generate 20 hours of reliable renewable energy per day using the Saharan sun and windy night conditions. The plan is to build nearly 12 million solar panels and 530 wind farms over an area of ​​960 km2 of desert. The site, in the Guelmim-Oued Noun region, will also have 20 gigawatt hours of battery storage.

The cable carrying electricity from the site will run along the Moroccan coast, then along Portugal, northern Spain and France before looping around the Isles of Scilly to end at Alverdiscott in North Devon, where Xlinks has already accepted 1.8 gigawatt connections.

Morocco has an established wind, solar and hydropower industry, and its solar intensity, a measure of generating power, is second only to Egypt and double that of the UK, according to data from Xlinks.

The power lines will be laid by the world’s largest cable laying vessel and buried under the seabed to mitigate the risk of damage from fishing boats. The company is in the process of studying the seabed and obtaining offshore permits.

Xlinks is hoping to land a strike price of £48 per megawatt hour, lower than the £92.50 agreed for the delayed Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset.

The company argues that despite the scale of the project, it may be more reliable for the security of UK energy supply than domestic options, as wind power in the UK can be extremely variable. National Grid last week released, then canceled preparations to launch its emergency winter plan after weak wind and solar power limited supply.

Lewis has personally invested in the Xlinks project, alongside Octopus Energy and its founder Greg Jackson.

Growing demand for renewable energy has stretched supplies across the industry. In response, its sister company XLCC plans to build two factories to manufacture cables in Hunterston on the west coast of Scotland and another at a yet to be announced site in the North East of England. The first received planning permission in June and is expected to create 900 jobs.

Lewis, who worked for consumer goods company Unilever for 27 years, became chief executive of Tesco in 2014. He soon had to tackle an accounting black hole and is credited with turning Britain’s biggest retailer around before leaving in 2020. He is now president of Haleon. , the consumer goods company spun off from GlaxoSmithKline earlier this year.

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