Climate change boost for Rwanda, DRC: Clean energy for a net-zero future by 2030

View of Lake Kivu, City of Goma and Mt Nyiragongo volcano
View of Lake Kivu, City of Goma and Mt Nyiragongo volcano

Few countries achieve a totally clean energy future on non-transport energy. In this post we discuss the potential for Rwanda and DRC to achieve this with a shared resource. Germany tried with its Energiewende for 20 years. It wanted a full transition to clean power by 2020. Michael Schellenberger of Der Spiegel questions its failings and why. With a year to go it’s achieved only 25% of it. Was it asking too much, too soon? So if not Germany, who then could do it?

How to get clean energy for a net-zero future?

My view is that for the same ambitious plan, Rwanda can do it, and quickly. The DRC can do the same for the Eastern DRC region. Ironically it’s Rwanda’s lack of coal and oil that helps the country get there faster. We know they have the will to achieve a clean energy for a net-zero future. But what about the means? It’s not as though Rwanda has the industrial power and capital of Germany, it clearly doesn’t.

But it has two things: (1) Few of the wrong power systems already in place, and (2) a transformational clean energy asset. It can make that future a reality without crowding its landscape with wind turbines, solar panels and power-lines. Rwanda is beautiful. It does not need that blot on its scenery.

Indeed the country, together with the Kivu provinces of DRC, can build a sustainable, clean energy future. Better still, it would soon have surplus for export to other neighbours in East Africa. In fact Rwanda can pass this key tipping point to a clean energy future in about five to eight years. The idea is fully sustainable for over half a century. In the same 5 years they can demobilise the hired power systems that run on imported diesel. If the HFO-fueled power plant is placed on standby, they run on clean power alone.

Hydro power & natural gas for a clean energy future?

So this region is poised to be a clean energy bright spot in the heart of Africa. The key resource for their sustainable, clean energy for a net-zero future is Lake Kivu. It’s potential is a unique case among Africa’s Great Lakes. It’s a source for both hydro and renewable biogas energy. Nature took a millennium to create this water-borne gas resource.

Think of Kivu as a giant, free, clean battery. Its potential is to supply up to 1400 MW for over 50 years and beyond. This output is seven times Rwanda’s current peak power usage rate in 2019. Clean power is just part of the upside. So is cheaper power and the potential for $150 B in power revenues before any carbon credits.

Transport fuels will change more slowly

For now we do not include transport fuels in their clean energy future plan. EVs remain quite rare in the region, they’re still an expensive luxury. Many vehicles on their roads used to be imported second-hand from Dubai. Until Dubai exports second-hand electric vehicles too, EVs may not be affordable. They may work well in the energy mix, with the cheaper, surplus power at night.

Can natural gas production reduce carbon emissions?

Sure. But we read of activists who reject natural gas as part of the climate solution or any clean energy future. They classify it as low-carbon but still a contributing threat. However the impact of producing Lake Kivu’s biogas applies a sharp twist to that logic. If we don’t extract methane from the lake, it will eventually super-saturate with gas and erupt. This means catastrophically. Should it, and depending when it erupts, it releases 2+ gigatons of carbon equivalent in just one day. Therefore the twist of logic is that avoidance of an eruption creates 2+ gigatons credit to the project. It is a climate winner, in a class of its own. For that reason the methodology of recognising Kivu’s carbon offsets may have to be established.

We know how to produce this lake’s gas, more safely and productively than anyone. Our updated solution is fully designed, pilot-tested and ready to build at full scale. The outcomes are fantastic, high impact, with great benefit to the country. However, we must also be aware what not to do. Thinking in GHG terms, if Lake Kivu stayed undeveloped it will be a major carbon-emission threat. For this baseline case, i.e. do nothing, it will erupt and emit 2+ gigatons of carbon. That disaster will happen any time within 70 years. Rising methane content is the trigger. It is also the big climate impact.

In our proposal, this threat is balanced by going ahead and producing its 60 bcm (billion cubic metre) natural gas inventory. Then we must use it as discussed here. If done successfully, this avoids and averts the 2+ gigatons of carbon emissions. This is a double impact, positive outcome that can also earn the stakeholders huge GHG (carbon) offsets for that carbon tonnage.

Clean power potential

Lake Kivu has been a source of hydro power for more than half a century. However, current use from either hydro and thermal power reaches barely 5 % of its potential. The southern outflow of the lake drops 700m in the 30 km cascade of the Ruzizi River. Studies show a potential of 576 MW from run-of-river hydro. No major dams are needed, so it’s low impact. To date just 30 MW capacity has been installed of the four phases mapped below.

But gas in the lake can also produce thermal power. Of that, only 26 MW is operating. Its potential output, with the best available technology and design in operation, is 800 MW. This thermal power combined with hydro provides nearly 1400 MW of clean, renewable power.

Map of the Ruzizi River cascade below Lake Kivu showing run-of-river hydro projects
Map of the Ruzizi River cascade below Lake Kivu showing run-of-river hydro projects

Three countries will share the future hydro output, as mapped above. After decades of studies and planning, parties signed an accord this week for a consortium to build 147 MW at Ruzizi III. This is another 25% of the river’s potential. The timing is not clear, but would take five years or more. In the meantime, other hydro power projects added 28 MW in Rwanda. 50 MW more hydro power should follow at Rusumo Falls on the Tanzanian border.

Biogas: part of the clean energy spectrum

What do we know about this added potential from gas energy in the depths of the lake? Lake Kivu is likely the second largest anaerobic bio-digester and store of methane gas on the planet. The biggest remains the oceans although they defy being dealt with as a single system like Kivu. Oceans store biogas and natural gas seeps as permafrost stores and solid methane hydrates. They are to date untouched, with methane hydrates difficult to recover. But we will concentrate on the permafrost seeps that contain 10,000 to 15,000 gigatons of carbon, increasingly at risk of more rapid emissions. To harvest them, we need to modify and build the next generation of our gas extraction technology to produce. We can test it with the core design element of our Kivu extraction equipment after more R&D on the resource locations.

However, Lake Kivu is unique in sealing and storing gas in solution, in deep water. From 250-500 m depths, the gas-in-water solution is rich enough to produce pipeline-quality natural gas. It takes the right extraction and enrichment technology, which is at the core of our business. It can produce enough biogas to supply the region’s power. In fact it can make 600-800 MW of carbon-negative power for 50 years or longer. Currently used technologies can do just 15% of that output.

However, this biomethane or biogas from the lake can provide an alternative energy delivery to a needy region. Natural gas by pipeline can replace firewood and charcoal, at an even cheaper price. It can thus become the region’s primary domestic and industrial fuel. But this switch to supplying pipeline gas needs infrastructure that does not yet exist. We have a plan for that.

A past World Bank accolade

The World Bank has credited our Hydragas team for developing a practical, low-cost model for gas distribution for LMIC countries. We developed this model to use stranded gas in Mozambique in the 1990’s. The country was in a civil war at the time. It was also the world’s poorest country. At the time, the country had stranded gas fields in an isolated area. The World Bank funded some of these Mozambican projects. In fact they really liked and appreciated what they saw in Vilankulo.

The World Bank wanted to copy and deploy it globally for poorer countries. Their validation assures us that it is also a good solution for Rwanda and the region. For the Vilankulo project we had built the world’s longest plastic gas pipeline at the time. With half of it offshore, it ran some 250 km. It connected two towns and three offshore islands. In fact the gas came from stranded gas supply from the Pande gas field. It had been drilled in the 1960’s but had remained unused 30 years on. We used it to supply the community with much-needed power and pipeline gas at low cost. That system has just passed its 25th anniversary with availability of over 99.9%.

Gas Engine in Vilankulo power plant in 2005
Gas Engine in Vilankulo power plant in 2005

The World Bank adopted this “Vilankulo Model” as the basis for their gas use model in the Greenhouse Gas Flaring Reduction (GGFR) initiative. In the report, they planned to deploy it in 38 poor countries in three continents with a budget of $ 6 B. Flared gas would be used to power up local communities, providing cooking gas and small power. Such gas was previously flared during oil production.

Historic energy shortfalls

Power generation from Lake Kivu has been government priority. But in the 10 years after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, just 10-12 MW of grid power was available in Rwanda. Across the lake in the Kivu Nord and Kivu Sud provinces of the DRC there was even less grid power available in 2009. The Rwanda government planned a 10-20 times increase to cater for the assessed shortfall. It sought know-how and investment to enable its production, neither of which was available. But even less grid power was available in the DRC’s Kivu provinces from Lake Kivu hydro. For example, the city of Goma in DRC receives just 2 MW of hydro power from the Ruzizi cascade from Lake Kivu’s overflow, serving atiny fraction of the needs of a population of almost 2 million. Hydro power suffers a seasonal drop in generation in both the long and short dry seasons. Being on the equator, dry seasons occur around the solstices. Therefore both the lake’s outflow and thus run-of-river generation drop.

Up to 2006, Rwanda’s power blackouts were an everyday experience. They lasted over half the day, in scheduled rolling blackouts. But at the time, less than 6% of the population had access to electrical power. I used to wonder why most of the rural and even urban population was asleep by 7pm. But lighting was simply too costly to run and street ligthing was scarce. The exception was Goma on the DRC side. Unlike much of Rwanda, Goma came alive at night as the city partied. Diesel and gasoline generators clattered away in the night, adding to the noise of festivities.

To support the Goma lifestyle and economy, gasoline-fueled generators supplied a small portion of the population, mainly the more affluent users and businesses in Goma with power for lighting. The bars always had light, music and cold beer. It was a shock to see how much mobile phone owners in Goma paid vendors for a recharge, possibly the highest tariff anywhere. Only government entities and senior politicians had access to grid power.

The daily battle for cooking fuel

Charcoal suppliers in Rwanda
Charcoal vendors in Kigali, Rwanda 2003

Firewood or charcoal supplied 90% of non-transport energy usage in 2006. By 2018 it was down fractionally to 83%. Deforestation rates were unsustainable. This changed little despite efforts to increase imports of LPG. The tropical forests has all but disappeared. The exceptions are the Virunga and Nyungwe forest reserves. Even these national parks weren’t immune. Charcoal-burners encroached into parks, cutting and burning trees to supply demand in the cities. Rebel militia in enclaves in DRC “taxed” the transport of charcoal en route. Prices escalated well above inflation.

In Rwanda, charcoal costs could absorb 25% of a household’s income. This could cost Rwf 2000 per bag ($3) in 2004. In 2019, the price has escalated above Rwf 10,000 per bag ($11). A family would use more than a bag a month. The 250% increase from 2006 is well above inflation. The country imports over 10 million kg or LPG per year, but its high cost means that household energy costs remain too high.

The 2003 Draft Gas Law stipulated that gas use is solely for power generation. Fortunately the updated 2008 Draft Gas Law removed the power-only clause. In this case natural gas can and should supply the alternative to LPG, fuel-wood and charcoal for cooking. Pipeline gas must become this viable alternative to biomass in the region’s supply mix. But using a first-world distribution model won’t do it as the capital cost and usage charges would be way too high. The “Vilankulo” option is better.

Constraints on power supply

Power in the region was and remains too pricey for most users. It was more than five times higher than in South Africa or Zambia in 2006. The marginal cost of new power was governed by the cost of diesel generation, with diesel cost very high in the hinterland. Power pricing was a major socio-economic problem for residents and for commerce and industry. Electric power was only affordable to a few, with flat rates in Rwanda from USc 22-26/kWh. Just 6% of the population had a power connection in 2006.

Even today, with more available power, it is being priced more granularly by REG-EUCL. It sells at graduated rates for domestic and industrial users. Power connections are up to 54% in 2020. Also, time-of-use tariffs have been introduced for industrial customers with smart metering. But pricing pressure continues to severely constrain usage. Average consumption is just 56 kWh per year for households. This compares to 1800-2000 kWh per year in Botswana and Mauritius, which are comparably growing economies. Clearly households will use a bare minimum, typically for lighting and electronics only. Charcoal and firewood are the economic choice for heating and cooking. This is despite their own high costs and inflation.

In the DRC, regulated domestic power use tariffs are much lower than industrial rates. However, up to now SNEL has a severely limited the power supply to Goma. The 2MW grid supply serves a city of almost 2 million people. But this is less usage than most city blocks typically in developed countries. Supply was rationed by the utility. Domestic users had no supply despite paying fees for a connection. To comment on pricing is therefore a moot issue. That is, until SNEL restores supply to more users.

A clean energy future needs smart solutions

Hydragas studied and modelled energy supply needs of Rwanda and DRC as part of our Lake Kivu gas production studies. We prepared several feasibility assessments on energy competitiveness and market size. The market was price sensitive. Our recommendation was to supply combined power and gas feeds to households. 

We considered that power alone is only affordable to less than 20% of the population. Most customers would preferably use it for essential lighting and electronics. Charcoal was preferred for cooking. But the poorest used only firewood with no power. Gas, if distributed to homes, could supply the bulk of energy needs in almost all homes to complement electricity. The combined gas and power can be supplied cheaper than its alternatives.

Several sources can contribute to the power supply mix for Rwanda. This mix includes hydro, biomass (peat) thermal, solar PV and thermal power from Kivu’s renewable gas. Wind and solar are seasonally less effective than in other parts of Africa, with power factors poor for 7-8 months a year. This is partly due to few months of sustained winds. There are also short sunny seasons, except in the south and east.

But the country has looked to retire its hired diesel generation fleet early. This has been its generation mainstay, but the cost is higher than the retail pricing. Power is still subsidized, consuming 2-4% of the country’s budget. They should re-deploy HFO thermal units as stand-by or for peaking power. Then Kivu gas-to-power can supply the base-load demand reliably and cost-effectively. With further added capacity, this source can begin to supply export power to the East African Power Pool grid.

Balancing thermal energy and electrical power

But at the same time, Kivu gas can and should supply thermal energy. It is a cheap and convenient heat energy for households and industry. A key impact from gas use is to halt or reverse deforestation. A capital investment need is a new national gas network. This will provide the backbone for gas transmission and distribution around the country.

The geography of Rwanda is perfect for running a cost-effective gas supply network, as an expanded form of the Vilankulo concept discussed above. It works because Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa. In fact it is also one of the smallest. This situation therefore reduces the capital cost per user. We advocate using the Vilankulo concept, compatible with new US and EU-based design standard for pipelines. It was developed in Mozambique because conventional North American or European standards could still cost more than the average family house in DRC and Rwanda. It is unaffordable to most residents and would kill the potential for widespread use. 

How best to get gas into houses at low cost?

It is simple to deploy with simple equipment supplies and limited training. It also supports an “Africa-appropriate” commercial model. This well-studied alternative can make distribution much more cost-effective. It is at the core of what made the gas program very effective in Mozambique.

The pilot testing team after a day on the lake Dec 2003

Our team of Rory Harbinson and Fred Wilson, pictured above, led the gas network installation program in Mozambique. It ran from 1992 to 2014. Their practical solutions led a cost reduction program for household gas. Another simplified approach was to eliminate 98% of the gas meters at households. It took five years of usage to pay for a gas meter for small users.

Lessons from Nigeria on commercial strategy

The commercial pricing model originated in Nigeria. Why even install a gas meter that costs as much as 3-5 years gas usage? It will never pay back. Why specify the household gas fitting to be the same as Europe? In Africa, the cost of such a household gas installation will exceed the cost of the houses.

Installing HDPE plastic gas pipelines for domestic supply
Installing HDPE plastic gas pipelines for domestic supply

We designed simpler gas systems using small 63 or 32 mm plastic piping for street mains. In fact these operated at medium pressure, higher than in old cast-iron street piping in Europe. We buried lines along Mozambican streets with little or no paving. Further, we tapped in 12 mm house feeder lines. They fed gas to a simple pressure reducer, delivering gas to each house. The basic delivery systems are adequate for any 0.5 – 1.0 GJ per month users.

Tapping into a gas street main to supply a large house of town block

In 1992, the cost of connecting a house was $200. It included a two-plate burner to start. All of them are still operating 25 years later. By comparison, legacy systems in Europe or even South Africa cost $4,000 – $10,000, 20-50 times more expensive. In fact we believe that this cheaper connection for Rwanda can cost $450 in 2020 for all costs from the city gate to the burner. This includes the starter set-up with a two-plate gas cooker. Indeed, lighting, water heating, gas refrigeration, barbecues and full size stoves can follow as needed, with piping upgraded for commercial users and larger houses.

A commercial model for our times

We prepared feasibility reports in the early 1990’s for Mozambique’s local gas and power distribution. To cut costs to users, we made it simple and cheap to operate in rural Africa. The donors funding the scheme, from Scandinavia, asked a Norwegian expert to review our study.

To our amusement, the queries he raised included the following: Where is the fleet of vehicles for the utility staff? What is the budget for an office block for a computer billing and administration system? Where is the workshop to repair all the gas meters and test or calibrate them? Also, where are the trench-diggers and earth-moving equipment? His list would have more than quadrupled the project cost and made gas unaffordable.

Where’s the budget for all the gas pipeline equipment?

But beyond installation, a key part of the commercial design does have benefits. These include further cost reductions and increased employment. Our view is that an “Africa ready” commercial model worked well in Nigerian cities for landlords in apartment blocks. They allocate points to each apartment by counting lights, stoves, TVs, water heaters etc. Tenants paid a proportion of the full metered block usage, according to their own “points” count. Indeed it was accepted as fair and runs in most cities there. Because of how it works, cheating hurts and is visible to one’s neighbours.

Women empowerment: tens of thousands of part-time jobs created

A comparable gas model can create a part-time income for 10,000 – 20,000 women entrepreneurs in the Kivu provinces and Rwanda. They can train simply to become “block” franchisees in their neighborhoods. We configured a three-tier system with: At the top, a national gas transmission network and management team; next, a second-tier of town or district operators who franchise areas with up to thousands of users; and finally the women’s “block franchises” would be the third-tier.

These female entrepreneurs become the local distributor for say up to 50 households in their “block”. Their role is to assess points regularly, monitor excess usage and levy a monthly charge to users on the same metered block basis. They arrange for connections of new users and collect monthly charges. In East Africa most such transactions are done as mobile phone transactions.

Mobile phone technology exists in Rwanda to manage such billing and payment systems for operators and users. It is widely used for other utilities and services. The block and district or town distributor earnings are a percentage of their block or district collections. There is easy visibility through the chain (blockchain?) to audit the chain of transactions. All this is available as a simple mobile phone app, connected to the town/suburb/ district franchisees and on to the national distributor.

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