Rwanda: Methane Gas Extraction on Lake Kivu Gains Momentum

The KivuWatt Methane Gas Plant on Lake Kivu (file photo).

In Karongi District in the Western Province, a giant extraction platform floats on Lake Kivu waters. Built out of thousands of concrete and stainless steel, the platform captures methane gas, a rare asset that is shared between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

That extraction platform was a result of the efforts by Rwanda to attract private investors to inject resources into the lake to extract a resource with great economic potential.

In 2015, the Government commissioned the first industrial-scale gas-fueled power project, KivuWatt, on Lake Kivu. It was the first of its kind in the world. The project utilizes potentially deadly methane gas found in Lake Kivu's deep waters to generate electricity.

The gas extraction facility, located 13km from the shore and tethered to the bottom of the lake, extracts gas by bringing gas-laden waters from 35 bars to 2 bars of pressure via a gas separator where gas bubbles are extracted from the water. Raw gas is then washed in four wash towers, ultimately producing clean methane gas.

This gas is transported to the power plant through a pipeline and at the power plant, combustion engines generate electricity to be supplied to the energy grid.

From its baseload, the facility owned by Contour Global, a US-based company, generates 26 megawatts.

Until 2004, extraction of the gas was done on a small scale, with the extracted gas being used to run boilers at a brewery in Gisenyi. Since then, the Government has prioritized the production of electricity from this unique resource in order to address the growing electrical energy deficit.

Scientists suggest that exploiting Kivu's methane potential also serves to prevent a possible disaster.

With methane concentrations rising, scientists warn that Kivu will eventually experience a deadly phenomenon known as an overturn.

This occurs if the pressure of the gases in a lake exceeds the pressure of the water at a given depth, causing a chain reaction that releases them with violent results.

Only two limnic eruptions are known to have occurred in recorded history--both in small lakes in Cameroon in the 1980s. In the fatal of the two episodes, at Lake Nyos in 1986, more than 1,700 people were suffocated when a cloud of carbon dioxide spread as far as 25 kilometers from shore.

According to scientists, Kivu contains a thousand times more gas than Nyos: if even part of it escaped this way, more than two million people living near its shores would be at risk.

While that is true for the most part, the Government sees more economic potential beyond the deadly nature of the Lake and beyond the generation of electricity.

Just this year, Gasmeth Energy Limited, a locally registered company, committed to invest over $400 million (about Rwf 369.4 billion) in the construction and maintenance of a gas extraction plant, processing and compression project in Lake Kivu.

The company would extract methane gas and turn it into liquefied petroleum gas used as fuel for heating appliances, cooking equipment, and vehicles.

"The Government has an ambitious plan under its National Transformation Strategy to increase electricity generation. What is being done is to allow industries to grow, allow businesses to thrive and propel the economy," Ron Weiss, the chief executive of Rwanda Energy Group says.

According to the Government's Strategy, the Government is working to increase energy generation from the current 224.5 MW to the projected 556 MW by 2024. To achieve that, the country has been marketing Lake Kivu as a prospective area for investors.

Just last week, a new project was inaugurated at the shores of Lake Kivu in Nyamyumba village, Rubavu District.

A group of investors led by Lord Irvine Laidlaw, a renowned businessman, together with Government officials put a foundation stone on the construction that is expected to result into a development of 55 megawatts of methane gas, more than double of what the current investor is producing on Kivu.

The project is a public-private partnership between Shema Power Lake Kivu Limited (SPLK Ltd), formerly Symbion Energy, and the Government. The project is a 25-year concession, and the Government made a huge offset commitment, according to Weiss.

Energy extraction is still a capital intensive investment and perhaps that is why Symbion Energy failed to raise funds to pursue the project, and ended up giving way to investors like Laidlaw.

Unlike other infrastructure projects that require investors to raise financial resources to pursue the project, the new investor comes in with his own investment and construction works starts immediately, reflection of the momentum building around methane extraction on the Lake.

For Patrice Uwase, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Infrastructure, the project is a synergy with other strategic projects that Rwanda has invested in and is "expected to bring more energy to the national grid, and increase our installed capacity."

According to Uwase, one of the strategic objectives of the Social Transformation Pillar of the National Strategy for Transformation (NST1) is to reduce the cost of doing business and facilitate trade by implementing key projects including scale up electricity generation and improve quality, affordability and reliability power.

Energy is one of the stimulators of the economic development of the country, Uwase said as she officiated at the launch, and the government is continuously facilitating investments in the energy sector with a goal of achieving universal access by the year 2024.

The increase in generation is expected to reduce dependence on fuel which is currently at 27 per cent to about 5 per cent as well as reduce the import bill.

Laidlaw, on the other hand, emphasizes that the project will create many jobs and capacity building for Rwandans during project implementation after completion.

"These jobs will directly impact positively the livelihood of the Rubavu District, especially to Nyamyumba sector residents," he said at the inauguration of the project.

Rwanda has ambitions of connecting 200,000 households to the grid annually and 300,000 to off-grid to meet the 2024 access targets.

Investments like that of private investors like Laidlaw are expected to help the country achieve that goal.

Currently, a total of 1.2 million households are connected to energy with access of 51 per cent.

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