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£18bn project to link UK to huge wind and solar farm in Sahara delayed by a year

An £18bn project to connect Britain with a huge wind and solar farm in the Sahara through an undersea cable has been delayed by at least a year because of political ructions in Westminster.

The energy startup Xlinks hopes to provide 8% of Britain’s energy supplies through a 3,800km (2,360-mile) cable linking Morocco with the UK, powering 7m homes by 2030.

The project had been expected to begin generating power by 2027. However, that target date now appears unlikely.

The Xlinks’ executive chair, Sir Dave Lewis, a former chief executive of Tesco, warned that the recent political turmoil that has seen off three prime ministers in less than six months has stalled its progress.

He has been trying to secure a government “contract for difference” – a mechanism under which public subsidies are used to offer low-carbon generators, such as windfarms, a fixed price for power. The arrangement aims to encourage investment by making revenues more predictable.

Lewis told the Guardian: “We spent a long time with the then business secretary [Kwasi Kwarteng] who said: ‘We like it a lot but it needs to go through Treasury.’ There was a review with Treasury, Cabinet Office and the business department, which was very positive.

“Then we came back to them to start the detail and the political world exploded and, as a result, everything stopped. And everybody has changed, so it’s sort of like you’re starting again.

“Time is important for the UK to meet its net zero ambitions, to secure energy supplies and to reduce bills. We have lost a year.”

Xlinks was founded in 2019 by its chief executive, Simon Morrish, who has grown the environmental services business Ground Control across the UK.

When the Morocco-UK link is complete, Xlinks expects to generate 20 hours of reliable renewable energy a day using the Sahara’s sunshine and breezy night-time conditions.

The plan is to build almost 12m solar panels and 530 windfarms over the 960 sq km area of desert. The site, in the Guelmim-Oued Noun region, will also have 20 gigawatt hours of battery storage.

The cable transporting power from the site will hug the Moroccan coastline, then pass alongside Portugal, northern Spain and France before looping around the Isles of Scilly to terminate at Alverdiscott in north Devon, where Xlinks has already agreed to 1.8 gigawatt connections.

Morocco has an established wind, solar and hydroelectric power industry, and its solar intensity, a measure of generation power, is second only to Egypt and double that of the UK, according to data from Xlinks.

The power lines will be laid by the world’s largest cable-laying ship and buried beneath the seabed to mitigate the risk of damage from fishing boats. The company is in the process of studying the seabed and gaining offshore permits.

Xlinks hopes to land a strike price of £48 per megawatt hour, lower than the £92.50 agreed for the delayed Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant in Somerset.

The company argues that despite the scale of the project, it can be more reliable for the security of UK energy supplies than domestic options because UK wind power can be hugely variable. Last week National Grid issued, and later cancelled preparations to launch its emergency winter plan after low wind and solar power left supplies tight.

Lewis has personally invested in the Xlinks project, along with Octopus Energy and its founder Greg Jackson.

Growing demand for renewable power has stretched supplies across the industry. In response, its sister company XLCC plans to build two factories to manufacture cables in Hunterston on the west coast of Scotland and another at a yet to be announced site in north-east England. The first received planning permission in June, and is expected to create 900 jobs.

Lewis, who worked for the consumer goods company Unilever for 27 years, became Tesco’s chief executive in 2014. He quickly had to tackle an accounting black hole and is credited with turning around Britain’s largest retailer before leaving in 2020. He is now chair of Haleon, the consumer goods company spun off from GlaxoSmithKline earlier this year.