Given the energy deficit in Rwanda as well as the rest of the East African countries—an issue which was highlighted during the recent East African investment conference—Rwanda is increasingly looking at alternative sources of energy to power the country.
Currently, only 5% of Rwanda's population has access to electricity, but the government has set the target of 16% by 2012 and 35% - 40% in 2020. To achieve this, the government has to focus not only on additional production, but also to take into account the possibilities, and limitations, for distribution.
Considering the cost of the extension of the traditional electricity grid, the government through the ministry of infrastructure is increasingly examining alternative sources such as solar power, geothermal, biogas, methane gas as well as wind, especially for rural areas which so far have no connection to the electricity grid.
Solar energy is becoming ever more important in electricity generation. Even though solar photovoltaic cells still remain relatively expensive, solar-powered systems used for water heating are becoming more affordable and thus gaining ground.
Solar energy in Rwanda has also been exploited in recent decades by local and international organizations for the electrification of churches, schools and households in rural areas. However the relatively high cost of solar systems is still a barrier to their widespread use.
However, it remains a viable option for areas that are not connected to the national grid and that have no potential for micro hydro plants. It is also highly useful for smaller communities such as schools, hospitals and health centers, as well as administrative centers.
For this reason, the five-year economic development and poverty reduction strategy (EDPRS) targets to have solar systems installed in all health centers, 50% of the schools as well as all administrative centers in the country. Individual households can also benefit from these projects, although they will have to contribute to get connected.
Another sign of Rwanda's commitment to solar energy is the fact that it is home to the largest solar plant in Africa, located on Mount Jali on the outskirts of Kigali, and constructed by the ministry of infrastructure with the support of the Stadtwerke Mainz, the power utility of the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. The first phase of the project, called Kigali Solaire, was inaugurated in June last year.
The solar plant currently feeds 250 KW into the grid, but there are plans to expand the plant to a 1 MW capacity. Electrogaz technicians have also been trained to take care of the maintenance of this system.
Electricity from cows
Another alternative source of energy currently being used is biogas. The national domestic biogas program (NDBP) aims to install at least 15,000 biogas digesters in rural households by 2011.
Small biogas digesters using cow-dung are already installed in several households, where they provide sufficient energy for cooking and lighting. The program is boosted by the national 'zero-grazing' policy, which requires people to keep their cattle in a pen, thus making the cow-dung available close to the household.
On top of that, the one-cow-per-family program will enable more people to actually benefit from the biogas program. So far 103 biogas digesters have been installed in households in Ruhango, Gasabo, Kamonyi, Rulindo and Gicumbi districts.
Most digesters are made from bricks and stones, but a pilot project using more efficient fiberglass digesters is currently implemented in Kirehe district, where Chinese engineers are training technicians in installing the prefabricated digesters. The technology has the added advantage that the installation takes less time.
For some time now, biogas has also been used in prisons and schools, where it is produced with waste from the latrines. Rwanda has even gained international recognition for its achievement, which has reduced the costs of cooking in prisons by 50%. It has at the same time solved the big environmental problem caused by the overflow of human waste. The government is now considering expanding this technology to more schools and hospitals.
For the construction of domestic biogas installations, the government offers technical assistance to households as well as subsidies worth Frw 200,000. The families themselves contribute by digging pits and providing sand and stones. The government has also set up a credit scheme in Banque populaire specifically for the biogas program.
The use of geothermal energy-using the earth's internal heat, which is possible especially in volcanic areas- in Rwanda is still in its preliminary stages. The French bureau BRGM (Bureau de Recherche Géologique et Minière) has estimated the geothermal energy potential between 170 and 300 megawatts, based on work carried out at a hydrothermal spring in the western part of the country.
In 2006, the American company Chevron confirmed the potential after two geothermal prospections. In June, 2007 the ministry of infrastructure submitted a proposal to the German federal institute for geosciences and natural resources (BGR), which is now working on the assessment of an area between Volcanoes national park and Gisenyi to determine the exact geothermal potential. The work should be completed by the end of this year.
The Ministry has also embarked on developing local expertise, with three Rwandan engineers having completed short term training at the UN university geothermal program. One engineer is currently pursuing a six month course in at the program in Iceland.
The ministry furthermore has plans to begin geothermal exploratory drilling of appraisal wells, which is set to commence in 2009. Power plant development, drilling of production wells, installation of steam line pipes and power plant construction should start in 2010.
On the other hand, the ministry is set to identify prospective investors who are willing to invest in the geothermal energy sector. This is expected to begin next year.
Wind energy is currently considered to be the most cost-effective alternative energy source, yet it has not yet been given priority in Rwanda, because of the lack of detailed and reliable information on wind regimes and potential exploitation sites.
However, since demand for electricity is growing and the government is trying to diversify the country's energy sources as much as possible, the ministry of infrastructure is currently exploring the possibilities of wind energy development.
This kind of energy is particularly interesting for rural electrification, because a wind turbine of 300 KW could supply more than 1000 households with electricity, making it ideal for areas far from the national grid with a favorable wind regime.
However, some preliminary work will need to be done before the first turbine can be installed. First of all, a wind atlas has to be developed to facilitate the identification of suitable sites and the estimated exploitable wind energy capacity throughout the country. This will require detailed meteorological surveys and the erection of wind potential measurement instruments in promising sites.
Moreover data will have to be collected over a period of about one year to gain valid results. Currently, the ministry is identifying and contacting experts in the field.
Next steps will include a pilot project of two or three turbines of 100 KW to 300 KW through funding from the European Commission, in an effort to improve access to electricity in rural areas.
Another possibility that is currently under development is Lake Kivu's methane gas, where the Government counts on involving the private sector. In this regard, a promotion campaign was launched by the Unit for the Promotion and Exploitation of Lake Kivu Gas (UPEGAZ).
When Rwanda faced an energy crisis back in 2004, the Government of Rwanda decided to start exploiting methane gas, starting with a pilot project generating 4.5 MW. Once fully operational, the pilot plant will be instrumental in attracting funds for Kivu projects, which have long been constrained by a perception of technology risk associated with gas extraction.
The pilot plant will also allow monitoring of lake stability after gas extraction. The pilot plant, which was fully funded by the government, is worth about â‚¬10 million and is being constructed by an Israeli engineering firm, Ludan Overseas.
Once successfully tested and commissioned, the gas will be piped to the shore to fuel a 4.5 MW power plant connected to the national grid. The pilot plant is currently in the last stages of construction.