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'Exploding lake' could power economic 'revolution'

From David McKenzie, CNN
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Using lake's hidden methane as viable energy source
  • Some 60 billion cubic meters of methane gas and carbon dioxide in Lake Kivu
  • Rwanda is looking to tap Kivu's unusual source of energy to ease its power woes
  • It has signed a deal for a plant to create electricity from the lake's methane

(CNN) -- Spanning the borders of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the serene waters of Lake Kivu hide a deadly secret.

Beneath its tranquil surface, the 1,000-square mile expanse of water is one of the continent's "exploding lakes," thanks to the rich supplies of methane gas that are lying in its depths.

Because of the area's volcanoes and anaerobic bacteria in the water, there is an estimated 60 billion cubic meters of methane gas and carbon dioxide trapped in the deep-water lake.

Such abundance of gasses has massive potential for providing energy in a region pressed by widespread power shortages.

As a result, Rwandan authorities have embarked in recent years on a mission to tap Kivu's distinctive source of energy in a bid to ease the country's power woes.

Methane gas is our own resource, we have it in huge quantity.
--Yves Muyange, Head of Rwandan power utility Electrogas

"Methane gas is our own resource, we have it in huge quantity," says Yves Muyange, head of Rwanda's power utility Electrogas.

"If it is our own resource we can exploit it at a lower price," he adds. "So that will also help us to mitigate the risk we have on the environmental side, but also to the end-consumer to get enough electricity at a lower price."

In 2008, the central African country's government launched a pilot project at Kivu to extract its methane gas while hoping to attract potential investors.

In order to extract the methane, engineers lower a pipe several hundred meters to just above a layer of the dissolved gas. When a valve is opened, the deep water flows up and the gas bubbles out. The gas is then captured, cleaned, dried and sent to the shore, creating electricity in a cheap and effective way.

"This lake is our lake, it's free, the methane is free. Why not exploit it and produce electricity?" says Olivier Ntirushwa, platform engineer at the pilot project.

"It comes cheaper than using thermal plants or hydro plants where we would have to buy the source of energy in order to create the electricity," he adds.

In 2009, the Rwandan government struck a deal with U.S. energy firm ContourGlobal to develop a major plant at the lake to generate electricity from its methane.

The company, which recently announced that it has secured funding for the facility, says that its Lake Kivu methane project will provide Rwanda with 25 megawatts of electricity by July 2012, and eventually up to 100 megawatts.

That would double the 95 megawatts that Rwanda currently produces from all sources.

"A big supply of energy means new opportunities in life, potential for industrialization, better lighting in homes, better access by kids to computers and information and knowledge," says Vincent Karega, Rwanda's Minister of Infrastructure.

For us it's a revolution -- it's an economic revolution.
--Vincent Karega, Rwanda's Minister of Infrastructure

"So for us it's a revolution -- it's an economic revolution," he adds.

And while tapping Kivu's abundant methane deposits could help Rwanda unlock its energy potential, it could also mitigate the risk of a deadly gas eruption at the lake.

If deep water gas reaches a certain saturation point, then it could well up, rise to the surface and enter the atmosphere, with devastating consequences.

A similar disaster took place in 1986, when the much smaller lake Nyos in the West African country of Cameroon "turned over" and blanketed the region with carbon dioxide, killing some 1,700 people.

A 2006 study by researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology claimed that the release of only a fraction of the gas in Kivu could have "catastrophic consequences for the densely populated region." It added that gas concentrations could approach critical saturation levels "within this century."

Rwanda, a small country that was torn apart by civil war in the early 1990s, has experienced strong economic growth in recent years.

Yet, lack of access to electricity still remains a pressing problem for both business development and people's welfare.

According to Karega, energy is crucial for the country's future. "We are trying to solve the quality of life problem because we have no energy -- it is difficult to cool the vaccines, the medicines, to store and package food, to process it," he says.

"So energy is key for all of the socio-economic transformation."