Finance

UK start-up plans worlds longest subsea electric cable with Morocco

Renewable energy updates

A start-up with former Tesco chief executive Sir Dave Lewis as executive chair is planning to build the world’s longest undersea electric cable, stretching 3,800km between north Africa and Britain.

Xlinks is proposing to complete the £16bn Morocco-UK link by the end of this decade, delivering enough electricity to power more than 7m British homes.

Lewis said the project was also raising £800m to build three production facilities in the UK in a bid to tap into growing demand for the electric cables used for offshore wind farms and undersea interconnectors.

“We have secured with the Moroccan government an area of about 1,500 sq km . . . On that land we are going to put a solar farm, a wind farm and batteries which combined will produce about 10.5 gigawatts of power,” he told the Financial Times.

The project aims to produce clean energy in Morocco around the clock, from the sun during the daytime and wind at night, with battery power to help bridge the gaps. “This is renewable energy that behaves like baseload,” Lewis said. “We have none of the intermittency.” 

Some of the electricity will then be transported to a site in Devon through four undersea cables with a combined capacity of 3.6GW.

Xlinks, headquartered in London and established in 2018, has not yet secured funding for the Morocco-UK link. It is led by chief executive Simon Morrish, who is also founder of Levitate Capital, a venture company.

Use of undersea cables, or interconnectors, has increased in recent years because they allow countries to trade electricity.

The UK recently completed the world’s longest existing interconnector, between Norway and Northumberland in north-east England, which cost about €2bn and stretches 720km across the North Sea.

The rise of offshore wind in the UK has made interconnectors even more attractive, because it allows Britain to export power at times of surplus and import it when needed.

However, a cable as long as the one proposed by Xlinks has never been constructed, and previous attempts to build extremely long interconnectors — such as the IceLink between Iceland and Scotland — have failed to gain traction, due to cost and permit obstacles.

Tom Edwards, a senior modeller at energy consultancy Cornwall Insight, said importing electricity from Morocco to the UK might not be cost-competitive by the time it starts operating because of the falling cost of wind power.

“A key challenge [for a project like this] is cost, and the risk of not only delays but also overruns or having to change your route when laying the undersea cable,” Edwards said.

A fire this month at a site in Kent that is part of the UK-French IFA link forced that interconnector offline.

“Interconnectors are big things, and when they break they cause big problems,” Edwards said. 

Lewis said the company was “not looking for any subsidy from government” but was appealing for the project to qualify for the state’s “contract for difference” electricity tariffs, which currently only apply to power generated in Great Britain. 

“The CFD we are looking for is £48 per [megawatt hour],” he said, a level at which the project would be economically viable.

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