The Wild Plan to Export Sun From the Sahara to the UK

Submarine HVDC cables are preferable to overland cables because ships can carry a lot more cable per trip than trucks. XLCC’s methanol-fueled hybrid vessel, which will cost up to £300 million (roughly $338 million), will carry 160 km out to sea at once—a truck could only carry 1 km.

Xlinks is spending £18 billion to build the project, which raises the question of its fiscal value. Van Hertem said the profit margin could be tight if energy prices fall to the levels seen before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But Richard Harcy, Xlinks’s project director, argues that the numbers add up. “If you step back slightly and you start thinking about how affordable generation from wind and solar is in Morocco, all of a sudden it sort of makes sense,” he says.

Nevertheless, unexpected damage at any of the cables’ 95 joints could enforce long and expensive periods of downtime. “Things do break,” Van Hertem said. “There are parts that go up to 700 meters deep. If that spot is where your cable is broken, it isn’t going to be too easy. These are thick cables. They don’t bend that well. It is possible. But it’s hard to fix.”

The concept of connecting the plentiful renewable energy sources of North Africa and the Middle East with the high-demand centers of Europe is over a decade old. A group of politicians and entrepreneurs have been promoting the idea through the Desertec Foundation since 2009. But concerns over cost and security hampered adoption. Western leaders have so far been reluctant to rely on what they see as an unstable, and sometimes hostile, region.

The threat of terrorist attacks stokes one fear. Utilities have presented attractive targets to violent extremist organizations over the past 40 years, and annual attacks on these facilities have risen by over 350 times at two points during the past decade, according to the Global Terrorism Index.

But professor Karen Smith Stegen, an expert in the politics of renewable energy at Jacobs University, says concerns about terrorism would be minimized once countries developed diverse networks of interconnectors. Even if the Morocco-UK system failed, the UK could rely on its other HVDC-linked sources of power, like Norway, France, and (soon) Germany. If it was unable to do so, “dormant” fossil fuel-based plants could fire up in as few as six minutes. Even well-funded terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda lack the capabilities to bring an entire network down, Smith Stegen says.

The threat of a partner nation abusing an interconnector for political leverage is, for now, also off the table, because HVDC systems work more like streams than taps. “The issue with electricity is that it’s actually hard to just shut it off,” Smith Stegen says. “The electricity being generated has to go somewhere, unless you have massive storage, which has always been an issue.”

Effective long-term hydrogen storage solutions might change that. Hostile governments could seize the generation sites and store excess energy for later use, according to Smith Stegen. But she believes that politicians would do better to worry about HVDC systems’ vulnerability to cyber-attacks. She referred to the recent blackouts in India caused by China’s infiltration of its grid. “It seems that all this energy and electricity infrastructure is very vulnerable,” she says. “This is what people are learning.”

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