FAQs: Lake Kivu’s Dangers & Mitigation, 44 questions

FAQs about Lake Kivu's Dangers

Including Questions Asked by the Review Panel of Past Experts

Why is it known as a Killer Lake? What are Lake Kivu’s Dangers?

Lake Kivu’s dangers come from gases, mainly CO₂, CH4 and H₂S. They accumulate due to biogenesis in deep water up to the 485 m lake floor. Gas in solution after hundreds of years is trending closer to saturation. This is contributing to Lake Kivu’s dangers. Lake saturation means the carrying capacity of dissolved gas is fully loaded. Any over-accumulation threatens an imminent limnic eruption.
The dissolved gas volume is almost as large as the 500 cubic km of the lake itself. This will mostly release like a giant geyser in less than a day. In Lake Kivu’s case this can be catastrophic to all life forms in the lake environment, where millions of people live today near the shores.
Panoramic photo of Mt Nyiragongo from Lake Kivu during wet season showing steam plume

Is Lake Kivu the Only Killer Lake?

No. An eruption, occurring at Lake Nyos in Cameroon in 1986, caused 1746 casualties. Another happended in Lake Monoun. As Lake Kivu is 10,000 times larger, millions of deaths follow if we do not prevent it.
So Lake Kivu’s dangers relate to its huge inventory of gas.  The consequences can be over 1000 times larger. A dense cloud of gas will fill the valley to a depth of 100 m or more. Anyone caught inside the cloud will be asphyxiated by the lack of oxygen. Or, more quickly, they can be poisoned by the released hydrogen sulphide content of 2000 ppm.,

Can an Eruption of the Lake be Prevented?

Yes. Natural Lake Kivu’s dangers come from processes that create the biogas (methane) and co-products carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide have operated for thousands of years. It’s a near perfect environment for this to happen. So it’s not just about stopping gas generation, but about reversing any more accumulation to reduce the danger.
The “trigger” gas is methane as it’s much less soluble. Its 25 times higher partial pressure than CO₂ increases the eruption potential disproportionately. If one harvests methane, one can prevent an eruption. But the key to harvesting gas and preventing an eruption lies in how it’s done. It must be in compliance with the rules. Doing extraction the wrong way can bring on a disaster even more quickly.

Is there a Right and Wrong Way to Harvest Methane?

We now know that there are several wrong ways, and perhaps only one right way. The difference lies in two main areas. (1) Is enough of the methane removed from the lake in the extraction process? (2) Does the process destroy or preserve the natural safety mechanism of the lake? That is what keeps Lake Kivu’s dangers from gas contained in deep water.
We need to do the right thing. Harvesting methane for commercial reasons to make the lake safe, in a way ensures continued safety. The alternate to commercial production would cost billions and would never get funded.

When Will a Lake Eruption Happen and is it Predictable?

One can calculate when the lake would be certain to erupt simply, by following the trends. But the trend is changeable. We can even reverse the trend by our actions. Changes in nature can also vary the trend. Nature governs new gas formation; i.e. how fast or slow is like growing a crop.
Algal growth in the shallow waters depends on nutrients and oxygen. Wind and rain govern oxygen levels, with seasonal variation. But little-used agricultural fertilizers partly govern nutrient levels. Even more impactful is gas extraction bringing up deep water. Deep water is N and P-rich, depositing it in the Biozone above 60m. Therefore algal growth rates can double or more.

What happens with the Carbon Dioxide when you Harvest Gas?

There is five times more volume of CO₂ in the lake than methane. About four times as much comes into the raw gas from older, simpler extraction methods. More advanced extraction techniques produce less. But in both cases we must water-wash the gas to remove CO₂.
The whole balance is important. It’s not only important to retain CO₂ deep in the lake, where it is safest, but it has a role in driving the extraction process. CO₂ washed out of the produced gas into shallow water would be better to return to depth instead.

What does Lake Kivu do for Climate Change? Is it a big Problem?

It can be a huge problem, but it has the potential to become a giant climate benefit. The big gas emission problem seems inevitable. The lake saturation is trending to cause a huge eruption in about 50 -70 years. An eruption can release as much GHG as the United States in a year, anywhere between 2-6 gigatons of carbon, on any single day.

How then can we benefit? It is prevention of what is otherwise going to happen, but with some great side benefits. Those benefits include providing cheaper, cleaner, carbon-negative energy to the region.

When can an eruption happen?

As it stands Lake Kivu’s dangers of an eruption seem destined to see it happen in plus/minus 60 years. But the known occurrences, but unpredictably-timed potential for a new volcano or a seismic rift can pre-empt that scenario by decades. This scenario can trigger a major lake eruption any time from now. In one of the most active volcanic and seismic areas on the planet, this is an ever-present risk. However, the longer such an incident delays, the more severe an eruption could be as the gas inventory builds.

Is Climate Change the Main Reason to do the Projects?

Over time, the reason for and importance of developing Lake Kivu has changed. At first it was about filling an urgent need for power.

Recently it has become more focused on reversing climate change.
But overshadowing all of that, and potentially far more newsworthy, will be the humanitarian impact of a lake eruption. Millions of people could lose there lives on that same day. If caught in a toxic cloud in the dead of night. People would be defenceless.

With the best of safety alarms, with sirens warning people to get to high ground above the gas cloud. Many people will not make it. Prevention is far better than any cure.

Where can one learn more detail about the lake?

Lake Kivu’s dangers have become a special case in academia, dating back to the 1930s. It would not surprise us if more PhDs and Masters degrees were awarded on this body of water than nearly every other one. It is a unique lake with uncommon characteristics. You will find many papers in the EAWAG faculty, in Kastanienbaum on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland.

Blog posts on this site describe and refer to more papers.
The expertise comes from academia, consulting and the engineering world. They contributed to the large body of knowledge and to the drafting of the rules for use of Lake Kivu. Eawag provided experts on the lake itself to the pro-bono Expert Group.

A recent paper was published in Elsevier’s Science Direct, written by two members from COWI and Hydragas. Both are long-standing members of the Expert Advisory Group for Lake Kivu Development. It was published in January 2020. It speaks in great detail about Lake Kivu’s dangers and the solutions.

What are the Rewards for Developing the Gas Extraction Solution?

For the long lead time to developing a solution to Lake Kivu’s problems, that is a tough one. This is the province of scientists in the pursuit of knowledge, the publishing of one’s theory or invention. It can’t be for quick money. Most involved here earn little.

Now that’s where latecomers may have the advantage. They don’t have to spend millions of their own funds to pursue the ideas. In fact they can experiment with solutions or volunteer as an expert. Further, they clearly don’t have to commit the proverbial 10,000 hours to become an expert. Nor must they do the work to become the owner of a valid solution. They can wait, see who has it right, do some due diligence and then perhaps invest there in a fantastic opportunity. Lake Kivu’s dangers should not only be known by then, but their mitigation should be embedded in the solution

Can you put a value on the Value of Lake Kivu’s Development?

The best solution that comes out for the extraction process is, however, incredibly valuable. Beyond bragging rights of resolving one of the world’s intractable problems, there are huge potential commercial rewards. Any company that gets to that position is therefore a candidate biotech unicorn.

The best solution can extract up to $60 billion in revenues from the lake, with >80% FCF and high returns. Efficiency of extraction and recovery of available gas are vital in turning a non-profit into a super profits earner. This comes through smart and world-leading technology.

Does that value include Carbon Credits?

No. At this time there are evolving methodologies for claiming carbon credits. First is the simple replacement of diesel with clean fuel, that counts for about 7.5 Mtpa carbon. The alternative biogas emits 1.19 Mtpa.

Secondly, but much more significant is the prevention of an eruption that would emit 1.9 Gigatons in a one-off event. This is if calculated at 28 tons CO₂ per ton methane. The range is 25 to 87 t/t. Calculated at 87 t/t, the one-time carbon emission is 5.9 gigatons in a day. That number is close to the USA’s annual emissions of 6.9 gigatons in 2014. The value of these carbon emissions averted is huge. At just $30/ton, the value ranges from $60 – 175 Billion. The government of Canada has in 2020 published a rate of CAD150/ton.

How does a VC respond to information requested and provided on their initial enquiry questionnaire? We know the answer is never “yes”, but how is it done?

Hi Philip,  Thanks a lot for reaching out and for your interest in InActive Impact Investments! I have taken a look at the information you submitted through our application form as well as your website. From your website, it looks like you have developed a new technology to extract dissolved methane from water to generate energy. While we appreciate that energy generated from methane results in less GHG emissions than diesel generators, it does not fit with our investment thesis of investing in renewable energy sources, so we are not a fit for an investment in Hydragas. We wish you and your team all the best.

Best regards, Sophie

Hello Sophie,

Thank you so much for your considered reply. I get it. See the word methane and evil is assured. It’s a comforting mantra. Rather read no further than that “m” word and keep your hands clean.

But, though saying it will change nothing for you, this methane is biogenic. It is there in vast quantities and grows 1-2% per year from naturally digesting algae. It is not sequestered forever in the lake’s gas trap, so it has to be removed carefully before it erupts, to be removed with the least impact. That’s what we do.

The “moral” alternative is to leave it alone and allow it to erupt direct to atmosphere with 25 times the impact than the CO2 emitted from combusting it. Five times that volume of CO2 is released in the eruption, simultaneously. That limnic eruption could happen any day in the next 60 years, although the danger increases with time. Let’s also set aside any guilt that the eruption of this methane is a cataclysmic one day event, potentially to be the biggest natural humanitarian disaster of human history. It kills 2-4 million people that same day and emits one third of total annual emissions from the US per year, or 2 gigatons.

I get it that DAC, for example, sounds very noble. It’s most unfortunate that it is >50 times more expensive to lock up a ton of carbon that way. It’s also inconvenient that the mass and energy balance questions its carbon negativity. Its clean power consumption to make DAC carbon neutral means that this power use is diverted from other users. Fortunately it’s replaceable with non-renewables for the others.

Even our pilot plant, cheaper than CE’s DAC pilot in Squamish that will sequester one ton/year, does 160,000 tons per year of carbon emissions reduction. Our full project will remove more carbon than DAC plans to remove, in the next 20-30 years, about 1 gigaton. 

Our full project will also be able to supply a downstream project with cheap CO2 feedstock, enough for example to convert to 1 million tons per year of low-cost protein powder. This is in a region where the population, exceeding 500 million in 2030, is protein deficient.

Anyway, I’ve taken enough of your time. We wish you all the best in your mission. Please feel assured that you’ve at least saved the planet from some methane combustion by boldly saying no.

Regards, Philip

Questions asked by reviewers of a proposal to join the Innovative Growth Forum

Application Feedback from the NREL-IGF Application by five reviewers. It could be that they skimmed over the application, but perhaps the questions were not asked at all. What do you think?

Review #1: There are other technologies that could compete with these technologies, specially non CO2 emitters, such as solar PV. Methane, although is extracted from the lake, it would emit CO2. How competitive is the technology compared with natural gas. 

Response: The project presented is not a CO2 emitter. It is a negative emitter to the tune of 40 millions tons carbon a year in generating 600 MW. The power generation using gas engines or CCGT has the option of improving these negative emissions by another 4% by dissolving all the exhaust CO2 back into the lake, if that process is accepted by the environmental authorities for the lake ESIA. 

Further, the whole point of this project is to prevent the lake’s gas content building up to saturation, causing an eruption emitting 2 gigatons of carbon in a day. A billion solar panels do not contribute to that problem’s resolution. i.e. Not doing this project is a huge problem, requiring this solution.

Finally, this biogas used is far cheaper than any source of natural gas delivered to the region, as the closest source is thousands of km away. No gas pipelines any closer than that. This is remote Africa.

Gas extraction Pilot Test on Lake Kivu

Review #2:  I’m not sure this is a renewable energy company? 
While the team has a novel method for extracting bio-methane I’d have concerns around leaks and emissions from combustion. 
Given the resource depth it seems as though the methane is sequestered and this project will bring it to the atmosphere. 
To the extent the team is also going to need to build the power facilities there is additional financing risk on the company on top of a $23mm capex demonstration plant. And at roughly ($23mm + $12mm) per 5 MW (~$7/watt) I’d wonder how the plant would be cost effective.

Response: If you’re not sure, then ask. This is renewable energy because the lake is a natural digester, not even man-made, using the Acetate Process to convert dead algae to CH4 and CO2 in anaerobic conditions. That’s by definition RNG – renewable natural gas! It’s the biggest biogas digester on the planet. Please look it up for reference.

Leaks and emissions from combustion may be symptomatic of gas pipelines operating at pressure, but this is a low pressure system operating short, new, HDPE pipelines at 5 bar, or 5% the pressure of typical large gas pipeline systems. I have built a number of HDPE gas pipelines and experienced two leaks in 25 years, both quickly repaired. Leaks will be very evident from the submerged gas pipeline on the lake, with a visible stram of bubbles. Repairs take a few hours.

The resource is deep, so it is at high pressure with increasing partial pressure over time. Gas is temporarily sequestered, until gas reaches saturation. Once saturated, or even earlier if disturbed by an energetic volcanic event, the total gas load of the lake can erupt. This would release gigatons of carbon in a day. So keeping gas “sequestered” creates more risk of a far worse problem than using the gas in a controlled manner. This degassing pays for the essential, but otherwise very expensive and higher emitting degassing of the lake with no revenue. That approach is silly.

Your economic analysis makes a flawed assumption. It is that the cost of gas production, distribution and power generation are all to be included in your calculation. Only the 33% cost of the power plant belongs in that calculation of generation cost, as the balance of capital cost goes to the fuel supply cost. It’s a common mistake. Unlike the Sahara Desert and the many arid areas of Africa, solar power competes with the high-density and dominantly agrarian population for land. Covering the landscape with solar panels will spark serious conflict with landowners.

Review #3:  For speaking to your technology in the future please include detail on how it functions. – It was a little unclear how this project will be carbon negative and not simply a natural gas extraction play. 
Is there imminent risk of gas leaking out from underneath the lake? How likely is this and within what timeline? If this gas is going to be leaking into the atmosphere then it makes sense to capture and use it, however, if this is not certain then the justification of pursuing this project is diminished from the view of investors with an ESG focus. 
The expertise of the core team in this area is impressive, but seems like there will need to be more members brought on to help bring this project to life. Please consider adding a hiring plan for the next 3-24 months. 
IP expiration concerns will be on the minds of anyone considering investment in Hydragas. Would recommend providing expanded detail on how
patents on the core technology will be extended. 

Response:  In the form provided by IGF, 1000 characters does not give us sufficient space for the explanation you seek. This is a unique and complex project, unlike solar and wind power which everyone gets. But it was provided and referenced in the attachments. It will be carbon-negative as it prevents an otherwise inevitable eruption of 2 gigatons of carbon. “Prevention is better than a cure!”, as your mother may have told you. Check Response #2 for it not being “fossil” natural gas, it’s RNG.

There is no gas underneath the lake, it is all dissolved in the lake, in the water. You made an error of assumption here and the balance of your argument therefore does not follow. So what part of avoiding the loss of 2-3 million lives and 2 gigatons of carbon emissions in one day is not of interest for ESG? Are these lives and gigatons not worthy because they are in Africa? However, an outburst from the water of the lake is explained in the documentation. The explanation is simple physics. Once the total partial pressure of gas reaches saturation, it erupts in what is called a limnic eruption. 

Since the company has received no external funding yet, we have no payroll funded to keep our planned 20-person team on salary. Most of our team is on standby, working other jobs while we raise funds. A hiring plan can be added easily, but the on-payroll numbers were requested, not plans.

The plan for extension of patent coverage is developed, based on updated processes and improvements in mechanical design. In the meantime, most of the core information is kept secret and has not been copied or reverse engineered to date.

Review #4:  From the attached presentation, I have a hard time separating the
technology from specific project opportunity. 
It seems a lot of risk lies on getting the permit/rights to develop this specific project, and furthermore to get a firm offtake agreement in place on all capacity installed. 
Is there a pipeline besides this specific lake, or does the commercial roadmap stop there? 
What is the risk of developing a project that borders between three African countries? 

Response:  The technology was purposely developed for this specific need, hence the close correlation of technology and specific opportunity. But, having developed it, it became clear that multiple other needs were out there and the same concept design could be applied. These vary from methane seeps from submerged Arctic permafrost to Australian CSG (coal-seam gas) for which concept designs are complete. We haven’t the funds to pursue all in parallel, let alone this urgent need yet.

The risk of permitting is well know to the founder as he co-wrote the rules under which gas extraction is permitted, along with five other experts from academia. The offtake agreement on offer in the PPA is simple. It is a take-or-pay agreement at a given price. It could hardly be simpler or firmer. The agreement will be MIGA-backed like all previous offtake agreements.

There is presently no gas pipeline within 2000 miles of this lake, perhaps further in Cameroon or Nigeria. A project concept for gas distribution around the two countries has been prepared for discussion with governments. It has been discussed with the IFC/World Bank as an important solution for both countries to halt and reverse deforestation.It’s one of many follow-on projects to be developed.

The project is on a lake through which the border runs north-south. Both countries will be developing their 50% share of the resource in parallel, with the outline of how the resource is shared already legislated in both countries. The risk has been substantially mitigated by agreements on the development and the rules to be followed. This founder developed the resource-sharing and concessioning concept for both governments as part of drafting the rules. 

Review #5:  Very bold and important idea. Assuming technology for gas harvesting and separation is valid and works, why also build the power plants? Power generation is commoditized. You should be able to get higher returns just being a gas producer. 
Team looks a bit thin for all the work that needs to be done. 
Have you sought project financing from the IFC or World Bank? 
Seems like a really valuable project that the international financing community should support. Not a VC play. Project finance.

The lake and the gas in it is owned by the DRC and Rwandan governments. Concessions are to be granted to produce power. The obligation of concession-holders is to produce the gas and generate the power according to the rules (the MPs). We have discussed with the Minister of Energy in Rwanda to do as you suggest, produce the gas and allow the government to lease out the rights to generate power.

Power is commoditized globally, except that there is no local, capable generation utility that can step in. Having two parties complicates the issue commercially as one failure leads to another. Several poorly engineered gas production projects have failed or are failing. With two parties, both can blame each other for delays and failures and may sue the government, who also has to act as a referee. Do we need that? Do they? This is a developing world situation, not North America

The team is not on payroll yet, but largely identified as most have previously worked on the project. See Response #3.

It’s the other way around with the IFC and World Bank. Hydragas was approached by the World Bank and IFC as their best adjudicated provider of gas extraction capability. We signed an MoU. However, by their own rules we have to develop the project demo to provide “proof-of-performance” before thay can step in with 75% of the funding, as offered. The IFC’s first proposed development funder failed to raise funding and so we’re doing that instead.

We agree on not being a VC play. Other avenues are being pursued.

Review #6:  The application is nicely organized. The company articulates a clear vision to displace diesel generators, which would create significant savings and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The company provided helpful information on costs, status of the technology, IRR, and customer engagement. I am wondering how replicable the technology is water other than Lake Kivu. 
I also think there are risks in lack of customer diversification – the company really needs the utility partnerships to succeed. 
I am also not sure if the company appreciates the competition that is coming from very cheap renewables in Africa

The technology was purpose-designed for this project, as detailed in Response #4. Two diverse alternate opportunities were identified and conceptually developed. They are 20 times and thousands of times larger than this one, in Australia and the coastal zone of the Arctic Ocean. We plan to get to them.

The customer diversification is a political reality. In the past the customers have had few options and has not chosen well, in terms of granting concessions. It’s difficult to for them make selections in this very novel field of science and engineering. They now have a need and an option to correct that with us offering a far better outcome for them. They get up to five times more power out at a similar unit cost.

Very cheap renewables exist in Africa, mostly a long way away from this lake and not grid connected to this region in quantity yet. The displacement of expensive power will first have to address 4000-5000 MW of diesel rental power in the EAPP, with tariffs more than double what we offer.

Questions Asked of the Expert Group by Deltares, the 2019 Review Panel of the 2009 MPs.