U.K. venture Xlinks is hoping to succeed with a plan that has eluded others in the past: shipping Saharan renewable energy north of the Mediterranean. 

In Xlinks’ case, the concept is to install 10 gigawatts of PV and wind generation capacity along with 25 gigawatt-hours of battery storage near Tantan in southern Morocco and then pipe the electricity production all the way to Britain. The company acknowledges that the idea is not a new one. 

As far back as 2003, an organization called Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation sought to produce renewable energy in the Sahara for export to European markets. 

This plan was taken on by two bodies, the nonprofit Desertec Foundation and the Dii Industrial Initiative, in 2009. For a while, it attracted big names like First Solar

But the massive ambition of the plan, which involved a 400-billion-euro spend on 100 GW of generation capacity, prevented it from getting off the ground. That didn’t put off others that were attempting to follow suit, however. 

In 2016, the rising cost of new nuclear in the U.K. led renewable energy developer Nur Energie to propose investing in Saharan concentrated solar power capacity instead. The company’s TuNur project was supposed to start delivering power to the U.K. this year. That hasn’t happened thus far. 

Meanwhile, the Dii reemerged this year in connection with plans to develop hydrogen in North Africa, an idea that has met with a lukewarm reception from observers. And now there’s Xlinks.

In essence, Xlinks’ goal is the same as Nur Energie’s: to harness North Africa’s massive renewable energy promise for the U.K. rather than mainland Europe. But Xlinks’ backers believe their approach has a couple of distinctive features that give it a better chance of success. 

What’s changed in the past decade: Falling renewables costs and rising demand

The first is technology cost. Nur Energie was looking to use concentrated solar power, which was and still is a relatively expensive form of renewable generation. Xlinks will be focusing mostly on PV, which founder and CEO Simon Morrish claims can now deliver electricity at around $15 per megawatt-hour in North Africa. 

The second big differentiator between Xlinks and previous Sahara generation schemes is transport. While previous concepts looked to ship electricity via interconnectors to mainland Europe, Xlinks plans to run 3.6 GW of subsea cable capacity from the African coast to the U.K., following the continental shelf around Portugal, Spain and France. 

The beauty of this idea is that it would massively simplify permitting, Morrish told GTM in an interview. 

Even assuming a total project cost of £16 billion ($21.6 billion), half of which would go toward high-voltage direct-current cabling, Xlinks expects to be able to provide up to 7.5 percent of U.K. electricity with a contracts-for-difference bid of around £52 ($70) per megawatt-hour. 

This compares to a strike price of £92.50 ($125 at today’s rates) per megawatt-hour agreed in 2012 for Hinkley Point C, the U.K.’s newest nuclear plant. 

There’s no doubt that the Xlinks proposal is interesting, and not just in financial terms.

The U.K., which still faces an uncertain trading future with the rest of Europe, will have an uphill struggle finding enough clean generation to replace lost thermal capacity and service growing electrification demand. 

The government is betting on 40 GW of offshore wind to fill most of the gap. However, “as the U.K. starts putting more and more wind into the grid, you need diversity of supply,” Morrish said. 

This is “one of the reasons they continue to talk about nuclear,” he said. “I've got nothing against nuclear. This is just much more economically viable.”

Major hurdles face the transcontinental clean-power transfer scheme

So far, Xlinks has been able to attract major energy sector names, including Acwa Power President and CEO Paddy Padmanathan and former KiWi Power CEO Yoav Zingher. Nur Energie chairman and CEO Kevin Sara said in an email that he is “advising [Xlinks] in several areas.” 

Meanwhile, with £30 million ($40.5 million) in seed funding, mostly from Morrish, a serial entrepreneur, Xlinks is moving forward with preparatory work including National Grid connection permits and site assessments in Morocco. 

The project still faces some major hurdles, though. One is the high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) link. Xlinks is looking to run two 1.8-gigawatt cables between Morocco and the U.K., which it says will be the longest subsea cable system ever proposed. 

Britain doesn’t even have enough HVDC manufacturing capacity to serve its own offshore wind farms, let alone a project like the one Xlinks has in mind. But the Xlinks team thinks this could be a selling point for the project because it would force the U.K. to become a world leader in HVDC cabling. 

A second challenge might be harder to overcome. Morrish said that pretty much the only way to finance the full Xlinks concept is through a U.K. government contract. How far has Xlinks got with this? “Not very far, is the bluntest way to put it,” said Morrish. 

The company has tried engaging with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, he said. “I think they've been slightly distracted by what's going on with COVID. But you know what? Frankly, the politicians just need to get off their behinds and get stuff done.” 

Xlinks is “an absolute no-brainer for the U.K.,” he said. 

In convincing government officials to see it that way, though, Xlinks will be fighting the ghosts of Saharan projects past. 

The cost of solar and wind may have come a long way since Desertec, said Jenny Chase, head of solar analysis at BloombergNEF, in an email, but, she added, “the political feasibility of being reliant on pipelines to [North] Africa hasn't.”