If we continue to install solar in the UK it will all generate at the same time in the middle of the day in the Summer, and even if we use batteries to smooth the generation over each day, we will still generate very little power in the winter. However, because the Xlinks solar site will be located close to the equator we will generate more power in winter afternoons when we need it. When this is combined with a battery storage we can provide power whenever the UK needs it.
There are a number of benefits to building new solar in the Sahara, perhaps the most obvious of these is that there is more daylight hours and less clouds than in the north of Spain,so for the same number of solar panels you get more electricity. In addition to there being more hours of direct light, it is also more consistent throughout the year due to the proximity to the equator, enabling us to increase solar energy production in winter vs Spain or the UK.. More importantly though, the lower density of land activity in the Sahara means that the solar panels will not displace farming, making land acquisition more affordable and our project more sustainable.
The cost of the electricity will be similar to what consumers pay today, and after wider system and balancing costs are accounted for Xlinks will reduce the total bill for consumers. Comparatively, a recent estimate for the subsidy cost of Hinkley Point C is £50bn directly being added to consumers bills.
This might sound like the obvious solution, but the main benefits of building solar in the Sahara compared to the UK are not as significant if we are instead comparing Spain to the Sahara. While it is possible to build more solar in Spain, there are very few power cables that run north from Spain into France and the rest of Europe. Surprisingly this is the easiest way to get the power back to the UK.
In 2018 the UK imported over 9% of our electricity through subsea cables, so the idea isn’t new. In addition to importing electricity, the UK also imports almost 50% of all gas consumed via subsea interconnectors. The best way to increase the security of supply is by creating a more diverse supply network, sourcing our power from a variety of generation technologies and locations.
This has been considered in the past but at the time the cost of solar panels and battery storage was much higher. Interconnector technology has also advanced considerably to allow for lower energy losses and transmission over longer distances. We are now at the point where the Xlinks project is cost-competitive, and future projects are expected to offer even better value to energy consumers.
Offshore wind can now provide a low-cost sustainable source of electricity, and the UK should be building a lot more over the coming years. However, sustainable generation projects are typically very expensive to build and very cheap to run which in the case of wind results in a low overall price. The problem is that when the UK has a lot of wind generation connected to the system some wind farms will have to turn off during times of high wind speeds or low national demand. These wind farms produce fewer units of electricity over their lifetime, so the cost per unit increases.
This isn’t a reason to stop building wind farms, but it does mean that running an electricity system on 100% wind generation is extremely expensive. The Xlinks project not only provides low-cost energy but the flexibility it provides actually reduces the high cost associated with too much wind generation on the system.
The UK is already a world leader in this space and a combination of energy storage and sustainable generation is fundamental to achieving net-zero carbon. The major problem with this strategy is that existing and foreseeable storage technology can only balance out daily production and consumption. However, a lot of the issues are associated with balancing on a weekly or monthly basis, especially due to the fact that wind generation tends to fall during very cold weather (when electricity demand is high). Xlinks will generate every day of the year reducing the need for very long term storage.