A project to bring solar and wind energy from a 10.5-GW project in Morocco to the UK will feature what is likely the world’s longest subsea, high-voltage direct current (HVDC) cables. The importation of renewable energy also could provide the UK with another avenue for production of alternative fuels, such as hydrogen, to help decarbonize industry, a major focus of the country’s climate strategy announced last year that looked at offshore wind as a driver of a hydrogen energy economy.
The Morocco project has piqued the interest of renewable energy advocates and those who envision it as a model for intercontinental clean energy projects that could serve multiple purposes. In the case of the UK, it also could be part of the country’s recent push to reduce reliance on energy imports from Russia, after that country’s invasion of Ukraine moved many nations to reduce or eliminate their use of Russian-produced energy.
1. XLCC is manufacturing subsea cables for an Xlinks project that will bring renewable energy from Morocco to the UK. XLCC is building four, 2,361-mile-long cables. The first cable is expected to bring electricity from Morocco to a site in North Devon, in the southwest of the UK, by 2027. Source: Shutterstock
The subsea cables for the Morocco project will be produced by XLCC, which is building a factory in Hunterston, Scotland. The facility’s first manufacturing contract is for the Xlinks Morocco-UK Power Project; Xlinks is a UK-based renewables company, and is creating an export-led cable manufacturing industry in Britain via XLCC. The group will manufacture four, 2,361-mile-long subsea cables (Figure 1) for the project, with the first phase connected between 2025 and 2027, bringing electricity from Morocco to a site in Alverdiscott, North Devon, in the southwest of the UK. XLCC has said the project will almost double current global production of HVDC cables. XLCC in April signed a contract to use British-made steel in the project, which is expected to need about 90,000 tonnes of steel.
The solar, wind, and battery storage project will cover an area of 579 square miles in Morocco, and connect exclusively to the UK site, following a shallow water route from Morocco past Spain, Portugal, and France to the UK. Xlinks said the project will cost $21.9 billion, and include 7 GW of solar generation capacity and 3.5 GW of wind generation capacity, in addition to 5 GW/20 GWh of onsite battery energy storage.
The first cable is expected to transport electricity from the Morocco site in early 2027, with the other three cables scheduled to begin transporting power in 2029. Xlinks has an agreement with the UK’s National Grid for two 1.8-GW connections at Alverdiscott. The company said when complete, the project will supply as much as 8% of the UK’s total electricity demand.
Xlinks in late April said it has secured about£40 million ($50.3 million) in development funding, and is now looking for investors to secure the budget to build even more massive wind and solar farms in Morocco, along with supporting its UK-based operations to manufacture subsea cables. Sir Dave Lewis, Xlinks’ chairman, told Britain’s Sky News, “The Moroccan government has recognized that exporting green [energy] is a very important part of their economic plan going forward, so they have an export strategy.”
Xlinks said Morocco was chosen as the site of the solar and wind facility because it “benefits from ideal solar and wind resources, required to develop renewable projects that could guarantee suitable power production throughout the year.” The company said Morocco has the third-highest Global Horizontal Irradiance (GHI) in North Africa, more than twice that of the UK. GHI is the total solar radiation incident on a horizontal surface; it is the sum of Direct Normal Irradiance, Diffuse Horizontal Irradiance, and ground-reflected radiation. It often is used as a measure of flat-panel photovoltaic output.
Morocco’s government has a goal of having 52% of its installed generation capacity to come from renewable resources by 2030. “You can generate three times more energy per square meter in Morocco than you could ever do in the UK,” Lewis told Britain’s ITV News last fall when the project was first announced. “Whilst we can and we should go faster in the removal of emissions from fossil fuels, progress is being made. The technology exists to replace that with renewable energy but we need to invest and probably invest quicker. The idea that we can lower the price of electricity in a renewable, sustainable way—we absolutely have got to be doing that.”
British officials in recent weeks have looked at the cost of importing energy, including from renewable resources, to end reliance on energy from Russia. A recent report from industry association Offshore Energies UK (OEUK), formerly Oil and Gas UK, said the country needs about£60 billion ($79 billion) simply to achieve its goal of quadrupling its offshore wind power capacity to 40 GW by 2030. OEUK CEO Deirdre Michie in discussing the report said, “Energy security is now a matter of national security. Our policymakers need to plan not just for the coming elections but the coming decades. Offshore wind, the most successful form of renewable energy to date… requires significant investment if its expansion is to continue.”
Toby Gill, CEO of IPG, a British cleantech company working to help industry transition to alternative fuels and end reliance on diesel-powered generators, told POWER, “It’s great that companies are innovating, and to see that HVDC interconnectors are being used to address the challenge of transporting renewable energy across large distances. But the question is: Can we usefully use this energy to provide renewable power when and where we need it?” Gill said the UK’s energy grid and geography is such that renewable energy can proliferate in some areas, while thermal generation remains the leading electricity source elsewhere.
Said Gill: “The flow of power across our electricity network from over 2,000 generating stations through more than 25,000 kilometers of high-voltage cables [let alone the distribution networks] is unsurprisingly a complex phenomenon. The counterintuitive fact though is that not all parts of our network are equal. At the time of writing, the carbon intensity of power in Devon is 122 gCO 2 /kWh and the energy mix in that region from highest to lowest is nuclear [39.6%], gas [28.5%], solar [28.2%], and wind [3.8%]. At the same time in the north of Scotland, carbon intensity is 320 gCO 2 /kWh, with an energy mix of 81.2% gas, 12.1% wind, and 6.7% hydro. This shows that right now, Devon is very green and Scotland is very dirty. Often, with the abundance of wind power in Scotland, this is the other way around. But, either way, the fact that Devon is running on green power clearly does not mean that Scotland is able to, and vice versa.”
Gill noted that the 3.6-GW HVDC interconnect at Alverdiscott “is an enormous connection,” equivalent to 4.7% of current UK generation capacity. He said the southwestern part of the country “can certainly benefit from access to a renewables-driven interconnect, similarly to the North Sea Link [that connects the northeast part of England to Norway]. However, just as we can’t distribute renewable electricity from wind turbines in Scotland to provide green power for London, building this interconnector from Morocco to Devon does not mean we will be able to distribute this power further into the UK.”
Gill said the UK’s drive to phase out thermal generation in favor of renewable energy does not have a simple solution. “Beyond the challenges in generation, it is in the distribution of renewable power to where it’s needed, where we face restrictions. The question is, then, whether the electricity network is the best way of getting that energy to the end point of use. With the upgrade of our National Grid projected to cost up to£50bn [$62.9 billion] to enable better distribution of renewable electricity, we must look to whole system approaches that unlock bottlenecks in our energy system and open new opportunities.”
Gill said that could involve better utilization of the country’s system of natural gas pipelines. “An often-forgotten aspect of our energy infrastructure in the UK is the fact that we have a secondary nationwide energy distribution network, in the form of the gas system. Where this interconnector could be interesting is from the point of view of using that electricity to produce green hydrogen in Devon, which can then be distributed through the gas network. This could have a profound impact on the aspects of our energy system that are most difficult to decarbonize.”
Gill, whose company is developing a clean, fuel-flexible alternative to the diesel generator for industry, using flameless combustion technology to accelerate the transition to renewable fuels, said interconnects such as the one at Devon provide not only increased access to renewable energy, but can support hydrogen production as part of the UK’s climate and hydrogen economy strategy. “For businesses to transition, they need an alternative that can offer the same level of energy security as diesel,” said Gill. “That is why we believe using these interconnects to enable the domestic production of green fuels such as hydrogen, as an alternative to shipping renewable fuels across the globe, offers a more intriguing solution for an aggressive decarbonization of industries that rely on distributed power, and are looking to transition away from diesel. Given that the distribution of electricity through our network is complex, perhaps this approach makes better use of these innovations than bolstering the green credentials of just one region of our electricity network.”
—Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).