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DR.Congo prepares to tap to the Lake Kivu gas bonanza

After Rwanda, the DR Congo is making steps to tap the Lake Kivu methane gas resource in order to develop power projects

Twelve companies are bidding for the development of the first methane gas concession on the Congolese side, near Goma, which would involve the construction of a 20 MW power station. They are expected to submit a business plan for the development of the project, studies on the localisation of the gas and on the construction and maintenance of the power station. The Ministry of Hydrocarbons is only waiting for the adoption of the Hydrocarbons Law by the Parliament before awarding the contract.

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The exploitation of the methane gas is an old dream which started in 1937 when a Belgian scientific expedition discovered its presence in the waters of Lake Kivu. In 1963, a pilot power plant using the methane extracted from the lake was built by engineers from the Union Chimique Belge (UCB) at Cape Rubona and its electricity was used by the Bralirwa Brewery in Gisenyi (Rwanda). Other pilot project, consisted in the construction of the Rwandan government owned Kibuye Power 1 which generates about 1.5 MW capacity since 2008 and a private power plant developed by the French company Data Environment on behalf of the Rwandan Energy Company which reached a capacity of 2.4 MW in 2010. The main challenge is the development of a gas extraction technology that is sufficient to transport and separate the methane (CH4) from the carbon dioxide (CO2) to generate electricity in much higher quantities.
The potential of the lake is estimated at 54 to 58.5 billion cubic meters out of which 30 to 50 bn bcm could be exploitable, coincide several scientists including the Data Environment’s founder and Geophysics professor at the Université de Savoie (France) Michel Halbwachs and his colleague Dr Klaus Tietze from the Kiel University (Germany). The Lake has thus the capacity to generate a maximum 700 MW per annum, according to the most optimistic sources.

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A number of scientists are sustaining that the exploitation of the lake Kivu methane gas is not only desirable for economic and economic reasons. The price of the methane gas is cheaper than wood and charcoal and its electricity from power is twice cheaper than thermal power, argues Michel Halbwachs. Therefore, it could render huge services in the fight against deforestation which is particularly serious in the Kivu and has caused damages to the Virunga National Park. It also be used to produce urea for fertilizers. Moreover, the exploitation of the gas methane is recommendable because it represents the detonator for the explosion of the CO2 which is also present in the lake waters, says Halbwachs. At the moment,the pressure from the water is twice as high as the pressure from the gases and the risk of eruption is therefore low even in the case of a volcanic eruption affecting the lake but if methane is not extracted it could become dangerous in 100 years. In fact, the exploitation of methane would prevent deadly catastrophe such as occurred in Lake Nyos in Cameroon which when it became saturated with carbon dioxide and suddenly released a CO2 cloud, which suffocated some 1,800 people.

The Bidders

The exploitation of methane should reach the industrial stage in Rwanda with the first phase of the KivuWatt project developed by the US company Contour Global and supported by the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the Belgian and Dutch development banks BIO and FMO anis expected to come on stream in 2015. The plant which is built by the Finnish Wärtsila engineering firm represents an investment of US $ 142 million would supply 25 MW to the grid.

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Last August, another American company called Symbion Power which won a 50 MW of methane gas to electricity project. The US company will build barges at Cape Busororo, each of about 7 MW, and then suck up the water and separate the methane and CO2 through pipes, then capture the methane and pipe it onto land, through a power plant that produces the electricity.
Precisely, both Contour and Symbion are among the bidders on the Congolese side of the Lake, alongside with a number of companies such as the Kivu Lake Energy Corporation (KLEC) from the South African businessman, Clinton Wood who has declared that he was ready to invest up to US $ 150 million in a first phase to produce 25MW, in a joint venture with another company called Technobuild. Beside another South African company called Set Foundation, another bidder is the Société des Gaz et des Hydrocarbures du Kivu, (S.G.H.K.), created by the Congolese businessman Jean Pierre Muongo wa Shabahanga which signed in 2006 with the Kinshasa government a memorandum of understanding for methane extraction in order to produce 20 MW and sell it to the Société Nationale d’Electricité (SNEL) and solve this way the problem of the power outages in Goma and at the same time supply the Heidelberg cement factory of Katana (South Kivu) and a tin smelter. SGHK also developed a technical partnership with professor Halbwachs and has been testing Deutz engines for the combustion of the methane extracted from the Lake.

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Other bidders the British firm Ainsley International Ltd, whose subsidiary Dane Associates has been trying during several years to develop a methane power project in Rwanda and the Spanish firm AEE Power, filiale du groupe Eurofinsa. The list also includes the Tunesian company Engineering Procurement & Project Management SA (EPPM), the New-York based Investment Fund Akayi Group created by the South African businessman William Ntsoana and three other corporations called Variable Oil (DRC), Great Lake Energy (South Africa) and Karuss Empowerment (DRC, Uganda and Sweden). Three possible sites have been identified for the extraction of the methane in the North-Western coast of the Lake, during a bathymetric campaign financed by the Belgian government which was completed last August. In a second phase, the DRC government aims at launching another licensing round for three other blocks (Makelele, Lwandjofu and Idjwi).

The Risks

Several steps should also be undertaken to develop the cooperation between the DRC and Rwanda to tap the methane resource in Lake, recommend various donors and scientists. Indeed, Halbwachs and his colleagues, as shows a DRC government presentation on the oil and gas prospection in Lake Kivu, shown during a conference on mining governance transparency which took place in March 2014, in Goma, large scale uncontrolled exploitation ranks among the risks of cataclysmic explosion of CO2 alongside with the risk an eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano. In 2002 indeed, its eruption provoked lava flows which went 120 meters deep into the lake, only 200 meters above the zone with high gas concentrations.

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All these factors, considers Emmanuel Ndimubanzi head of the North Kivu Mining Division, suggest that closer coordination is required between the two riparian states to tap the resource. A cooperation agreement signed in 1975 in Bukavu, already recommended the joint exploitation of the Lake resources, and was confirmed in 2007. In July 2009, both countries agreed to undertake a joint methane gas power plant 200 MW. And the DRC draft Hydrocarbons legislation is envisaging the creation of a bilateral regulation authority for the Lake. In Ndimubanzi’s view, the need to avert the risk of a limnic explosion must prevail over any economic consideration. Therefore, there is an urgent need, either to degas the Lake from its carbon dioxide (CO2) as recommend the scientist of the Goma Vulcanology Observatory or to exploit the CH4 (methane) which could be the detonator of the CO2 “bomb”.

François Misser

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