Page last updated at 13:03 GMT, Monday, 2 June 2008 14:03 UK

Rwanda looks to lake for energy fix

By Kevin Mwachiro
BBC East Africa Bureau

Barge on Lake Kivu (BBC)
This 20m-long barge will help extract methane from the lake

Nestled at the foot of active volcanoes in the Virunga Mountains, and deep within the idyllic surroundings of Gisenyi town, are the waters of Lake Kivu.

Kivu is now at the centre of efforts to find a solution to Rwanda's energy crisis.

The lake, which is shared by Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, has huge reserves of methane gas.

Current estimates suggest the lake holds at least 55 billion cubic metres of methane, which is equivalent to 40 million tonnes of oil.

The Rwandan government is funding a pilot methane extraction project on Lake Kivu. A consortium called the Rwanda Investment Group (RIG) is currently eyeing this effort in the hope of setting up a seven-megawatt power plant.

Three other investment groups have also shown interest in establishing power plants on Lake Kivu.

Ivan Twagireshema, the chief operating officer of RIG, said the large methane concentrations in Kivu were down to two separate processes: one is volcanic, the other is a result of fermentation of sediments at the bottom of the lake.

Extraction process

A solitary 20m-long barge imposes itself on the lake. Construction of the barge was completed in April, and two pipes have been lowered into the depths of the lake, and will be used as in the extraction process.

About 200m away, on the lake shore, two generations of power plants will soon stand side by side, albeit temporarily.

Nyiragongo (BBC)
The Virunga mountains are volcanically active

In the 1970s, the Rwandan government of the time experimented on the extraction process and carried out on-shore extraction just 50m off the shore.

The methane was then used to heat boilers at the nearby Bralirwa Brewery. This plant ceased to function in 2004.

The new plant will see modern gas generators use methane gas extracted by the barge and converted to electricity. This will add five megawatts to the country's generation capacity.
Newly constructed high voltage lines are already waiting to receive this much-needed electricity.

Rwanda badly needs more electricity. The country's main power provider, Electrogaz, currently produces 50 megawatts of electricity. Though the current demand could reach 100 megawatts.

John Mirenge, managing director of Electrogaz, notes that in order to meet this electricity deficit, more sources of electricity are required outside Rwanda's traditional, but unreliable, dependence on hydro-electric plants.

Energy problems

Plans to extract methane from lakes have been in the offing for the past eight years. A financial scandal stalled the process. In 2002, a Norwegian organisation, Dane Associates, was contracted to undertake the process of generating 40 megawatts of electricity.

The Rwandan government invested about $2.25m, and the project, known as KP1, was born.

Rwandan town (BBC)
Rwanda badly needs more electricity, say officials

The process of tendering was side-stepped as Rwanda was desperate to exploit the resources deep within the lake and with no other interested parties at the time, a mutual agreement was reached between the Rwanda government and Dane Associates.
As this project was the first of its kind internationally, and it stood to solve the country's energy problems, much was expected from the partnership.

But a few years in, the government expressed its dissatisfaction with the deal, and the partnership was ended in court.

The Rwandan government was still keen to exploit its most abundant natural resource, however.

CO2 danger

Methane gas reserves on Lake Kivu were discovered as far back as 1953.

A caretaker manager, Alex Kabuto, was appointed to oversee the continuation of KP1. With a small team of staff, based in the capital Kigali, and locally trained Rwandans in Gisenyi who complement the team of Israeli contractors, tangible results are now being seen just over a year later.

Rwanda does not have the sole stake in Lake Kivu's methane reserves. The spoils of the lake will have to be shared with its neighbour, DR Congo. Despite the 14 years of stability that Rwanda has experienced, the eastern Congo is still relatively volatile. Low-level rebel activity hinders the restoration of total peace.

Rwandan Navy
The Rwandan Defence Forces protect national interests on the lake

DR Congo's government is currently engaged in fighting rebel forces loyal to dissident army general Laurent Nkunda.

The Rwandan Defence Forces, the nation's army, has a small naval base on the lake, which not only patrols the waters, but also strategically guards the national interests invested in this project.

The benefits accrued from the extraction of methane from Lake Kivu will not only be felt by the country's energy sector, but could also help stabilise the explosive nature of the lake.

Lake Kivu is one of Africa's largest lakes. But alongside Lake Nyos in Cameroon, the two lakes have the potential to wreak mass destruction due to the high content of carbon dioxide held below its waters.

Lake Kivu has two shore towns on the Rwanda/DRC border, Gisenyi and Goma, and the large concentration of people in this area could be at risk if the lake releases its carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

This phenomenon occurs roughly every 1,000 years and can suffocate any people who are unlucky enough to be within range.

This danger that has not been lost the scientists working on this project. It is hoped the gradual release of CO2, along with the methane, could alleviate the pressure on the lake.

To Rwanda, the merits of this project outweigh any possible disadvantages. Within the next couple of years, the country could see itself on the threshold of becoming wholly self-sufficient in its electricity supply if the project succeeds.

And if this can be achieved, there is the potential for Rwanda to export energy to her neighbours. If so, Rwanda's influence in the politically volatile Great Lakes region could grow and grow.

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