High-tech methane plant a lifeline to Rwanda’s economy
LAKE KIVU: Some Rwandans tell stories of “demons” in Lake Kivu causing the deaths of fishermen and swimmers who have occasionally disappeared on one of Africa’s great expanses of water in the heart of the continent.
Now Rwanda is turning the methane gas which can bubble up from the lake bed, sometimes with fatal consequences, into a lifeline by generating electricity to help businesses expand and light up a nation with a chronic power shortage.
Across Africa, governments are struggling to increase power capacity and expand grids to meet the demands of growing populations with rising aspirations. Poor electricity supplies are often cited as one of the biggest hurdles to investment.
Rwanda’s KivuWatt plant, which began in May, is part of a network of projects aimed at providing 70 percent of the 11 million population with power from the grid or off-grid by 2018, up from 25 percent now. Much will come from renewable resources.
“The country cannot grow if you don’t have power,” Jarmo Gummerus, country manager for the plant developed by US company ContourGlobal, told Reuters on the shores of Lake Kivu, where a hi-tech barge gathers methane from the depths.
Rwanda, one of Africa’s poorest nations but also among its fastest growing, is harnessing its limited solar, peat and hydro resources to curb the landlocked country’s fuel import bill while keeping power flowing to spur on industry and create jobs.
Lake Kivu’s methane has now been added to the list of its emerging resources, formed from biogas created by decomposing matter on the bed of the lake that is trapped by a layer of mineral-rich water flowing off nearby volcanic soil.
Left untapped, it could one day explode or, as in the case of another lake in Cameroon, poison inhabitants on shore if it bubbles up in large quantities, experts say.
KivuWatt is now carefully extracting the methane to power a 26 megawatt plant, with plans to increase that to 100 MW by 2020 at a cost of about $600 million (R9 billion).
Despite that hefty invest- ment, using domestic resources is a boon for a nation which has to truck all imports into the country about 1 400km through Kenya or Tanzania, often along traffic-clogged roads that are poorly maintained.
Eventually, Rwanda could generate about 350 MW from methane, with a similar potential in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which shares the lake. The DRC is yet to tap the gas supplies.
The start- up of the KivuWatt plant is already benefiting local businesses in the region, which the government wants to promote as a tourist destination.
“If you came here eight years back, there was nothing,” Gummerus said. “It gives confidence for people to invest in Kibuye.” – Reuters