Devon's village to be linked by cable to solar and wind in Morocco
Could this Devon village hold the key to our energy crisis? Tiny rural community to be linked by a 2,360-mile undersea cable to a huge solar and wind farm in Morocco
- The village of Alverdiscott, near Barnstaple, has a population of just 286
- It is being connected to North Africa using world’s longest undersea cable
- Wind and solar energy from Morocco will power 7million homes by 2030
Little of note has occurred in the tiny Devon village of Alverdiscott since passing Roman troops built a temporary camp there.
Recent census data shows its population has grown by a mere five in a decade. And the village’s 286 residents are, in some respects, no fans of progress.
For centuries, Alverdiscott has been pronounced ‘Alscott’, but since Victorian times the inhabitants have doggedly refused mapmakers’ pleas to update its obsolete spelling.
Now, however, sleepy Alverdiscott, near Barnstaple and close to the North Devon coast, is to become the pulsating epicentre of an unprecedented revolution in global energy.
Investors are raising mind-spinning sums of money in order to connect the village directly to North Africa using the world’s longest undersea electric cable.
This is planned to bring wind and solar energy 2,360 miles from Morocco to power 7 million British homes by 2030.
Sleepy Alverdiscott, near Barnstaple and close to the North Devon coast, is to become the pulsating epicentre of an unprecedented revolution in global energy
The £16 billion venture aims to bypass fundamental problems with British wind and solar energy.
Our winds are unpredictable and tend to blow at times of the day when demand for electricity is weakest. As for British sunshine, well.
Meanwhile, in the Guelmim-Oued Noun region of Morocco, where the green power will be generated, the reliable Trade Winds blow year-round.
Equally handy, wind speeds at the Morocco site increase throughout the late afternoon and evening, which coincides with times of peak UK demand.
The sun also blazes for some 3,500 hours a year.
By contrast, Britain averages only 1,500 annual hours of sunshine.
And because the sun burns more intensely over North Africa, solar panels there each produce about three times more electricity than in the UK, even during winter when we most need power for heat and light.
The Xlinks Morocco-UK Power Project involves building an inordinate amount of new kit to generate and transport the green energy.
It means covering 1,500 sq km of Moroccan desert with solar panels, wind turbines and a massive battery storage unit.
And undersea cables made of copper or aluminium, and wrapped in polyethylene insulator, will bring the energy generated to Devon.
Four of these cables are needed, each threaded along a shallow-water route past Spain, Portugal and France to Alverdiscott.
In the village, two 1.8 GW voltage source converter stations, which resemble massive Meccano skeletons, will be built.
(1.8GW is the generating capacity predicted for the proposed Norfolk Vanguard wind farm in the North Sea, which would be made up of 180 turbines measuring up to 1,150 ft tall.)
The £16 billion venture aims to bypass fundamental problems with British wind and solar energy. Pictured: A huge solar power station in Ouarzazate, Morocco
Each new converter station will cost about £75 million and be the size of two football pitches.
And if their sheer size doesn’t make them stand out, a National Grid technical factsheet warns that such stations’ huge transformers ‘are sited outdoors and can generate significant levels of audible noise’.
The converter stations are needed because the green electricity is converted at the Morocco site from conventional high-voltage alternating current (HVAC) power to high-voltage direct current (HVDC).
In layman’s terms, they’re converting AC to DC, like gigantic toy railway-set transformers. Once the power reaches Alverdiscott, it is converted back to AC.
Why? Most power lines are AC, and so is most electrical equipment. But for any distance longer than 300 miles, DC is better as it’s more efficient and reliable.
Transporting the energy of sun and wind from Africa to power UK homes sounds brilliant, if somewhat fantastical.
It brings to mind the professor in Gulliver’s Travels who plans to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, to bottle and sell in winter.
But this is absolutely serious. The vast project is led by former Tesco boss Sir David Lewis. The Alverdiscott converter stations have already been granted permission to connect to the UK electricity network by National Grid (which is understandably cautious about anyone doing this).
Sir David is also raising £800 million to build three UK factories to tap into growing demand for the electric cables used for offshore wind farms and undersea interconnectors.
A spokesman for Xlinks says of the Moroccan plan: ‘This ‘first of a kind’ project will generate 10.5 GW of zero-carbon electricity from the sun and wind.’
Morocco has huge expertise in this area, having invested heavily in renewables. It currently boasts the largest concentrated solar-power project in the world — the Noor plant in the Agadir region.
The country already sells electricity from solar power. Its exports to Spain are made via undersea cables just like — but very much shorter than — the ones proposed for Britain.
The use of these cables, or interconnectors, has increased in recent years as they allow countries to trade electricity.
Last week, the Financial Times reported how the UK recently completed the world’s longest existing interconnector, between Norway and Northumberland in North-East England.
It cost about £1.7 billion and stretches 450 miles across the North Sea.
However, the cost and logistics of laying a cable as long as the one Xlinks is planning are another proposition altogether.
There is also the question of how green the project really is, given the huge amount of construction, equipment and infrastructure, such as cabling, involved.
A company spokeswoman admits that while the whole project’s costs have been worked out, ‘currently, the lifecycle CO2 emissions for the Xlinks Morocco –UK Power Project have not yet been calculated’.
She argues, however, that: ‘Xlinks want to be part of the global effort to stop global warming, and as such, the technologies and the locations the project uses will be chosen to avoid any harm to the environment and the livelihoods of the local communities.’
Some experts are concerned. In February, environmental researchers warned in the journal The Conversation that covering Morocco with massive solar farms could actually increase global warming.
They say solar panels reflect more of the sun’s heat back into the environment than does the desert ground they cover.
This could push up local temperatures by as much as 2.5c, they add, and have global knock-on effects, such as disrupting rainfall across the world, even causing drought in the Amazon rainforests.
Yet all this is balanced by the UK’s urgent need for energy security — particularly as it moves to rely increasingly on renewables.
Britain’s vulnerability here was exposed last month, when electricity prices in the UK surged to 11 times the normal levels.
The record high was caused by a crunch in the gas supply chain and a lack of wind to power turbines.
Of particular concern is our dependence on a European gas supply dominated by Russia.
Last month, Russia was accused of increasing gas prices in a bid to undermine Britain and the EU’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
More than 40 MEPs signed a letter accusing Gazprom of ‘deliberate market manipulation’ by ratcheting up gas prices to record levels.
The growing crisis has further fuelled fears that the Kremlin is able to exert massive leverage over Europe through its supply of natural gas.
Xlinks argues that directly importing green power from Morocco, a country with a record of stability, will safeguard the UK against foreign fuel interference and ‘price gouging’, or sudden increases in price — whether by the Russians or our EU neighbours.
‘The power generated will be transmitted directly to Britain without connection to the Moroccan, Spanish, Portuguese, or French transmission networks,’ it says.
‘This provides confidence that no matter what is happening, Britain will have exclusive access to reliable power from the Moroccan wind and solar resources.’
So far, none of this global power-play has made headlines in Alverdiscott’s parish newsletter, The Local Rag.
David Potter, its assistant editor, who lives 100 metres from the village’s current modest electricity substation, is rather bemused at the prospect.
‘It sounds bizarre,’ he says. ‘We’ve not been told anything. And no one round here seems to know anything about it.
‘As a neighbour said to me yesterday, if the news had come in April, we would have read it as a joke. As it is, we’re very much in the dark.’
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