May 29, 2024

From fusion energy plants and gigantic wind farms to tidal energy mega-turbines, there is no shortage of ambitious renewable energy projects underway in Europe.

But when British startup Xlinks announced in 2021 its plans to send several gigawatts of Moroccan solar and wind power to the UK via the world’s longest subsea cable, I’m sure even the most bullish engineers (and investors) were sceptical, and rightly so.

Under the plans, electricity from the Guelmim Oued Noun region of southern Morocco would be supplied via cables running 3,800km under the sea — through Portuguese, Spanish, and French waters — to the tiny North Devon village of Alverdiscott, where it would be connected to the national grid.

Similar schemes in recent years have struggled to gain traction. In 2009, European, African, and American investors founded the Desertec Foundation to build solar plants in the Sahara, but that effort floundered a few years later because of high transport costs and instability following the Arab Spring uprisings. Up north, a proposed interconnector between Scotland and Iceland — dubbed ‘IceLink’ — lost momentum due to cost and permit obstacles.

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There have been a few success stories, however, such as the North Sea Link between the UK and Norway, which became operational in 2021 and holds the title of the world’s longest subsea interconnector. Norway uses the link to import electricity at times of peak supply in the UK and vice versa, allowing more flexibility in both countries’ energy grids.

It makes sense to connect countries with different weather patterns, allowing them to help one another when there’s little local wind or sun. For instance, if the North Sea (where the UK has thousands of wind turbines) is calm, the weather might be sunny or windy in Morocco. And on blustery days in Italy, utilities could sell cheap surplus solar power to Tunisia, where most electricity is generated with natural gas.

Nevertheless, a project of Xlinks’ size or scale has never been undertaken, let alone approved by the respective authorities.