KIGALI, Rwanda — Rwanda’s beautiful Lake Kivu lies on the country’s western border. The lake is a tourist attraction, source of food for the local population and stores 60 billion cubic meters of methane gas.
It all began with a pilot project in 2008 – Rwanda launched an effort to extract the methane gas from the lake and use it as a power source for the country. The unique lake is one of three “exploding lakes” in the world.
The explosive nature is caused by anaerobic bacteria in the water from the area’s volcanoes. While the explosions, called “over-turns” can be extremely dangerous, the lake is regularly “degassed” allowing it to remain safe for the community.
While reducing the risk of disaster for the two million people surrounding the lake is crucial, the recent extraction project has another benefit – the potential to provide electricity for the country.
Olivier Ntirushwa, the manager of the Kibuye Power Plant expressed his enthusiasm for the project stating, “This is a source of power, a source of energy that’s free. It’s our lake, so why not use it like that?”
The power resource is certainly needed in the country. A mere 20 percent of homes in Rwanda have electricity. What’s more is that obtaining the energy from the lake is cheap, clean and could last for more than 100 years.
The seismic activity around the lake allows for the steady injection of volcanic gas into the water, making it “explosive.” The methane is located underneath the lake’s bottom. To extract it, engineers lower a pipe into the earth that is just slightly above the layer of dissolved gas. Once the gas is captured from the pipe, it is purified, dried and then used for electricity.
This method is a very cheap alternative when considering other energy resources.The plant is owned by the state.
The project is still in early stages: currently the plant extracts 3.6 megawatts of power – more than four percent of the country’s entire supply. According to Ntirushwa, it will take an estimated 1,000 megawatts to power Rwanda by 2020. Despite the obvious room for growth, there is an enormous amount of potential. Ntirushwa estimates that the lake has the capacity to produce up to 800 megawatts.
The amazing potential of the project has encouraged local and foreign investors to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to new methane plants along the lakeshore. A U.S. company, Contour Global signed a deal last year for $325 million with Rwanda to assist in the production of 100 megawatts of energy.
In two years, the government hopes to harvest a third of its power from Lake Kivu. If successful, the methane could be used not only in Rwanda, but would have the ability to be exported to neighboring countries.
Lake Kivu may be a beacon of hope for a power source, but it was not always this way. Before the lake was regularly “degassed,” it was a killer. Invisible pockets of carbon dioxide rose from vents along the shoreline. These “evil winds” would blow over those living near the shore, causing deaths among those who came into contact with the deadly fumes.
The world’s remaining two “exploding lakes” are both in Cameroon, and erupted in the 1980s, asphyxiating 1,800 people. Regardless of the “degassing” that takes place in Lake Kivu, it is still very dangerous and must be closely monitored.
Lake Kivu has the ability to both enhance and destroy life. If the gas levels are able to remain safely managed, the lake could prove to be not only provide a new economic opportunity for the country of Rwanda, but have the power to light up homes, provide warm food on family’s tables and increase the quality of life among the Rwandan population in general.
Ntirushwa described the promise the lake holds for his country, noting, “It’s a very rewarding job, because it’s the first time it’s been done. It’s a new technology, and the people of Rwanda are very excited about it. Being a pioneer, being the first doing this, it gives us respect.”
– Caroline Logan