Rwanda’s Lake Kivu: Electricity generation through methane gas

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By Colette Bitali, Associate Equity Juris Chambers, DLA Piper Africa member firm in Rwanda


 A hidden gem lies in the west of Rwanda, full of fear and promise. Just a few years ago, its full potential was untapped, its very nature was misunderstood, and it was considered a catastrophe waiting to happen. It is Lake Kivu, located on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and covering an area of 2,700 km squared.

The lake contains naturally occurring carbon dioxide and methane gas, making it one of three lakes in the world – the other two being in Cameroon – known to have a deep concentration of naturally dissolved gases. Lake Kivu, however, has almost 1,000 times more concentrated dissolved gases than its Cameroonian counterparts, which both erupted in the 1980s. Lake Kivu has about 300 billion m3 of carbon dioxide and 60 billion m3 of methane gas, giving it the capacity to produce between 120 million and 250 million m3 of methane gas annually. The reason for this concentration of gases is that the lake sits in a highly volcanic area; carbon dioxide enters the lake from the volcanic rock beneath it and is converted into methane gas by the bacteria and fermentation of biogenic sediments in the lake. It has been likened to a bottle of fizzy drink that, when shaken, releases gas.

For many years, Lake Kivu was considered a hazard by nearby residents. After several people drowned, a myth emerged that the methane gas had sinking properties. There were also fears that the water was becoming more acidic and inhospitable for fish – a large source of food and income for residents. And most importantly, there was fear of the lake erupting by methane igniting once it came in contact with air and concern that nearby residents could be asphyxiated from toxic greenhouse gases.

Under Rwanda’s transformation agenda, the government wants to address the growing energy deficit by providing access to power to all Rwandans by 2024. So it decided to change the narrative around Lake Kivu by attracting private investors. In 1963, Union Chimique de Belge began using purified methane gas with a pilot plant in Rubona, a neighbourhood on the shore of Lake Kivu. But it was not until 2015 that further methane-to-power projects were implemented.

KivuWatt, a project managed by Contour Global, was the world’s first large-scale methane-to-power project. The project extracts methane from Lake Kivu to generate electricity, expanding households’ access to power, lowering costs, and reducing environmental hazards. The first phase of the project used three gensets to produce 26 MW of electricity for the local grid. The second phase is expected to deploy nine additional gensets at 75 MW, essentially doubling Rwanda’s power production. KivuWatt extracts gas from 350 m beneath the lake, and returns carbon dioxide into it to ensure balance and continuity of the ecosystem.

The methane gas is separated and used to propel turbines, which then generate electricity. Separately, the Lake Kivu 56 project plans to generate 56 MW under its 25-year concession with the Rwandan government, which has also entered into a USD400 million concession agreement with Gasmeth. Under this agreement, Gasmeth will process and compress the gas onshore to create compressed natural gas, and create a distribution and retail network for the distribution of this and biofuel replacement across the country.

The methane in Lake Kivu is estimated to have the capacity to generate 700 MW of electricity over a period of 55 years. Rwanda’s share of the total generation potential is about 350 MW, with the rest being shared with the Democratic Republic of Congo. The government has established a supervisory body – the Lake Kivu Monitoring Program – to ensure the safe extraction of methane gas and protection of the surrounding population through the preservation of the lake’s stability. Gas laws and regulations for methane projects are under review and expected to be gazetted soon.

The gas law will establish a framework for the development of gas infrastructure and operations in Rwanda. Investors have found it challenging to find experts and bring them to the remote area of the lake, and to mobilize the required financing. Despite this, they have managed to explore this natural resource and optimize its use for the benefit of Rwanda and themselves. More challenges lie ahead, but without a doubt Lake Kivu today holds more promise than risk.

Source: DLA Piper Africa Connected Issue 3: Energy in Africa – Innovation, Investment and Risk