Region plans vital big grid connections

29 May 2023


The mantra “there will be no transition without transmission” dominated this year’s World Utility Congress, which was organised by Abu Dhabi National Energy Company (Taqa) and held in the UAE capital on 8-10 May.

“There will be no transition without interconnectivity with our neighbours. If we are not interconnected, we are not using the full capacity of our [electricity] network,” UAE Energy and Infrastructure Minister Suhail bin Mohamed al-Mazrouei said at the congress.

For the GCC states in particular, their ability to procure affordable and large-scale solar energy capacity, and the wide discrepancy in peak demands between the winter and summer months, which often results in substantial idle capacity, make it imperative to connect to other states or regions.

“Links to other GCC states and Central Asia will enable our electricity system to run more efficiently. Some have access to wind, others to solar or hydropower. We also have different peak hours,” Al-Mazrouei said. “We need to consider [these opportunities] and make the investments.”

Boosting transmission

In recent years, there has been a flurry of projects to build or enhance electricity transmission links within the GCC states, as well as with neighbouring countries such as Iraq and Jordan.

Contracts were awarded this year for the construction of overhead transmission lines connecting the GCC grid to Iraq via Kuwait, as well as a link between Iraq and Jordan.

Other projects in the early stages include a second connection between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the UAE and Oman.

Beyond the GCC, a $1.8bn electricity link between Saudi Arabia and Egypt is under construction. The project will facilitate the exchange of 3,000MW of electricity between the two countries through overhead transmission lines as well as high-voltage, direct current (HVDC) subsea cables.

The most ambitious plans include projects that will pipe electricity from Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco to European countries including Greece, Italy and the UK.

Some have access to wind, others to solar or hydropower. We also have different peak hours … we need to consider [these opportunities] and make the investments
UAE Energy and Infrastructure Minister 
Suhail bin Mohamed al-Mazrouie 

Shifting peaks

Energy security has spurred investments to interconnect electricity grids between national borders and time zones. The pace of development is reminiscent of the advent of data interconnectivity two decades earlier.

Grid interconnections are also critical for the integration and optimisation of renewable energy, according to Jessica Obeid, a partner at New Energy Consult.

“Grid interconnections enable efficient management and mitigations of stability challenges linked to the integration of variable renewable energy such as wind and solar into the grid,” she says.

These interconnections enable the deployment of renewable energy where land is vast and resources are abundant, to be dispatched in energy load centres.

More importantly, they reduce the curtailment of renewable energy systems through electricity exchange, balancing supply and demand at various periods.

UK startup Xlinks aims to connect Morocco to the UK via four HVDC subsea cables stretching 3,800 kilometres across the Atlantic. “Long distance interconnectors solve the intermittency of renewables as the sun is always shining or wind is always blowing elsewhere,” says Simon Morrish, Xlinks’ CEO. 

“The idea is to generate clean energy and then move it to meet demand, which is much more economic than relying solely on domestic capacity.”

Xlinks aims to generate 10.5GW through solar and wind farms in Guelmin Oued Noun and pipe about 40 per cent of that energy through subsea cables that will have to pass through Spain, Portugal and France. The UK will receive 3.6GW of clean, affordable energy – equivalent to 8 per cent of its electricity needs – by 2030.

Soaring data demand drives boom

Desertec’s long shadow

The scale of Xlinks’ ambition draws comparison with an earlier project, the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii), which launched in 2009, but ironically has yet to see the light of day.

Dii had planned to build renewable energy plants globally, including in Morocco, and supply up to 15 per cent of Europe’s power demand by 2050.

Xlinks’ proponents expect to succeed where Desertec failed, however. “Generation costs are more than 90 per cent lower than they were then, which makes the project economically – as well as politically – attractive,” Morrish says.

Xlinks’ point-to-point design with an exclusive energy supply for the UK is expected to eliminate challenges associated with trying to use third-party transmission networks.

Although the technologies are all mature, Morrish says iterations have led to a much lower levelised cost of transmission over these distances. There is also more expertise for the HVDC system beyond the original equipment manufacturers.

Average electricity prices in Europe have increased significantly over the past 10 years and power delivered from the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region is competitive with other reliable low-carbon solutions, according to Morrish.

The existence of clear renewable targets in Europe could also benefit Xlinks’ project, as well as similar schemes, such as the EuroAfrica Interconnector, which aims to link Egypt to Cyprus and Greece, and the Elmed Mediterranean project that links Tunisia to Italy.

Morocco’s renewable energy leadership, which includes having implemented legislation designed to facilitate the export of renewable energy, is another positive factor.

“Previous projects have typically focused on the recipient jurisdiction, such as Europe, rather than understanding the drivers for the generation country,” says Morrish. “By focusing on the benefits to the Mena region, in this case Morocco, Xlinks has obtained support from both Morocco and the UK.”

The 13-year gap between Desertec and Xlinks has not necessarily changed the mindset of some industry players, who are just beginning to grasp the complexities involved in other decarbonisation technologies such as green hydrogen and carbon capture and storage.

“It is an excellent concept, but it will be exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to execute given the high demand for HVDC cables, financing and political considerations,” says a Dubai-based contractor.

Unlike the more reasonably- structured interconnections between the GCC or Mena states, the scale and scope of Xlinks’ scheme and other similar projects will require export credit and multilateral development agency support in combination with project finance debt. Experts say this is critical, but not entirely unprecedented.

For instance, Taqa’s decision to contribute $31m in the startup’s early funding round, which also includes $6.2m from UK-headquartered Octopus Energy, appears to signify investor appetite for the project. The scheme is expected to boost foreign direct investment and create thousands of jobs in Morocco during its construction phase.

Electricity demand is increasing at alarming rates, in direct relation to the impact of climate change and the increases in temperatures, cooling and water demand, which reduces the available supply for exports
Jessica Obeid, New Energy Consult

Political undertones

In December 2022, Saudi Investment Minister Khalid al-Falih said the kingdom is keen to join an agreement between four countries to export clean electricity from Azerbaijan to Europe.

He was referring to an accord signed by Azerbaijan, Georgia, Romania and Hungary to build an undersea cable in the Black Sea transmitting energy from Caspian Sea wind farms to Europe.

The agreement involves a 1,100-kilometre, 1GW cable running from Azerbaijan to Romania. It is part of broader EU efforts to diversify energy resources away from Russia amid the Ukraine war.

This provides an alternative to Saudi Arabia’s grid expansion plans, and to the Saudi-Egypt link, as Egypt itself is involved in negotiations to link its electricity grid to Italy, Cyprus and Greece.

Beyond financing, there are other challenges for both intra-Mena and intercontinental grid connections.

An efficient electricity exchange market is necessary, notes Obeid. Another key issue is the unsustainable increase in demand in Mena states. 

Figure1: Saudi-Egypt interconnector route

“Electricity demand is rising alarmingly, in direct relation to the impact of climate change and the increases in temperatures, cooling and water demand, which reduces the available supply for exports,” she says.

Plans to interconnect with Iraq, which has been heavily reliant on Iran for energy imports, can also be tricky. “The incentive is mostly political. Many countries have expressed interest in connecting their grids to Iraq’s, but none of these projects have yet materialised,” says Obeid.

“Linking Iraq to the Saudi grid is bound to be more viable and cheaper for Iraq compared to alternative options such as electricity exports from Jordan. But that is pending a political decision and would get Saudi Arabia and the GCC political and economic influence in Iraq.”
Jennifer Aguinaldo
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