Buried in the text of the latest Government Strategy Paper on the UK’s energy prospects. Powering up Britain, (the fourth in four years, with more to come) there is a slightly surprising paragraph about Morocco. This paragraph stands out because, in contrast to the cascade of schemes, plans, commitments, policies and promises which fill the surrounding pages on every aspect of our energy and climate challenges, both now and in the longer term, the Moroccan reference take us into a different, almost futuristic, world. No harm in that. This is the Government in ruminative mood, “interested in”, but so far only “exploring without commitment to” a huge scheme called the Xlinks project.
When completed, this mega-project will transmit vast quantities of green (solar) electricity from Morocco via 3800km of subsea high voltage cable, (long but not the longest in the world by any means) direct into the UK national grid system, adding some 10.5 Gigawatts to UK supplies. That’s about a sixth of the extra “clean” power that will be needed to replace all gas, oil and coal by 2050, as required by our climate laws. Fossil fuels still supply 91 per cent of the UK’s present energy usage.
That’s the equivalent of output from four or five new nuclear giants — or at least thirty smaller-designed nuclear units (smaller modular reactors or SMRs) — which are much quicker to build and more attractive to private investors, as well as outweighing the economies of scale.
The inclusion of an almost stand-alone reference to this colossal Moroccan undertaking, (the solar farm area covered to deliver it is estimated to be the size of Greater London), is therefore deeply significant. It shows that the British Government is serious, although cautious, about entrusting a vital part of UK daily power supplies to a North African nation.
Choosing Morocco as a partner has obviously been thought through very carefully. Morocco is a long time friend and a stable and well run monarchy, led currently by a monarch, King Mohammed VI, who has piloted the country through many challenges. It has also shown itself to be highly innovative in green energy expansion. Any outside long term heavy reliance for power supply is risky, as past experience bitterly confirms. But a judgement has been made — that letting climate violence win is riskier still.
What has long been privately acknowledged is now openly recognised — that if by the mid-2030s, or sooner, gas and oil are phased out for homes, petrol and diesel banned for vehicles, and almost all industry, aviation and farming barred from using gas or oil, then the bulk of 91% or so of Britain’s daily energy usage from these “dirty” sources will have to be replaced by green, carbon-free, electricity. That can only mean by new green, “clean” electric sources on a scale for which no domestic plans or strategies currently exist. (Figures quoted by Daragh Coleman of CBI Projects Ltd and verified by Imperial College).
Where will all this clean electricity come from? The usual answer is that restored and expanded nuclear power can fill the supply gap — one day — plus much more energy efficiency, with a big improvement in Britain’s appalling home insulation record. And some remaining carbon still being emitted by 2050 will be captured by carbon capture and usage schemes.
But the UK has allowed all its nuclear plants to run down to a fraction of low carbon power, (once it was almost 30%). Meanwhile the Government, while talking up smaller modular reactors in the future, is still putting all its chips on giant plants which take years to build and are riddled with design problems.
One of these mammoths from yesterday is actually still being constructed at Hinkley Point in Somerset, where the combined French and Chinese project is running ten years over time and £12bn over budget, with plenty of other design problems dogging it all along. Incredibly, the next great plan, already under way, is to replicate this unhappy design (none has hitherto being built on time or is working properly) at Sizewell C in Suffolk. The final go ahead will be given, says Powering Up Britain, “before the end of this parliament”.
But new nuclear power — sooner, smaller, later, larger and whatever the design — cannot possibly fill the huge green electricity deficit by 2050. To come anywhere near it would need to start now, this day, and require sets of SMRs which can be built quickly, financed mostly privately and factory fabricated either by Rolls Royce or by overseas importers poised to provide them.
There are some other helpful factors. For instance, hydrogen (itself requiring electricity to make) will replace big diesel engines (but not for home heating and cooking, without tearing out all domestic piping). Further ahead again there beckons the “holy grail” of nuclear, namely fusion, waste-free, fission-free and cheap, but for now still only at the boil-a-kettle stage.
But the inescapable reality is that really big new outside sources of new green power will be required. Fusion will come too late, and Sizewell C will come too late. Neither will solve present wild price volatility now or climbing global carbon emissions, when they should be falling to get anywhere near the Paris global warming targets.
So it is to enormous projects such as Xlinks — bringing a massive additional green energy supply, and minimising the widespread disruption and delay of either doing nothing or doing the wrong thing too late — that the Government is now being compelled to turn. This is why it is encouraging to see the Moroccan project right there in the middle of Britain’s strategy document. Realism has dawned.
To gain any hope of reaching net zero or making a real impact on the climate violence to come, other such projects (considered far-fetched yesterday) will be required. All will need to be aimed at integrating our energy needs into a gigantic, spreading and resilient low carbon international system.