High-tech meth­ane plant a life­line to Rwanda’s econ­omy

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE - CLE­MENT UWIRINGIYIMANA

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

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