As natural disasters go, the limnic eruption -- an explosion of gas from beneath a lake -- of Lake Nyos in Cameroon in 1986 ranks among the most horrifying and bizarre: About 1,700 people and 3,500 livestock were suffocated when a large cloud of CO2 descended silently on their villages.
Lake Kivu, one of Africa's great lakes, which lies on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, poses a similar danger because vast amounts of methane gas and CO2 are buried in its depths. At the same time, rural Rwanda desperately needs more electricity--only about 6 percent of the nation's 9.7 million people are connected to the electricity grid, according to the government.
To Contour Global, a private company that specializes in power-generation projects in the global south, this is a business opportunity. The company has embarked on an ambitious $325 million plan to extract the methane gas from the lake to provide about 100 megawatts of gas-fired electricity to Rwanda.
To put that in context, total generating capacity in Rwanda is now just 69 megawatts -- about 10% of the capacity of a single coal-fired power plant in the U.S.
Recently, I spoke with Bill Fox, senior vice president of Contour Global, who is overseeing the Lake Kivu project. The company, he told me, was founded in 2005 by Joe Brandt, a former executive with the global power generation company AES, and funded by Reservoir Capital, a $4 billion investment fund. Contour Global and Reservoir Capital are based in New York.
Fox, who is 62, spent most of his career in the U.S. before joining Contour Global two years ago. Since then, he has managed a hydroelectric project in Brazil and made four trips to Lake Kivu.
“The country, under President Kagame, has a very ambitious goal to increase the electrification rate," Fox told me. "They’re going about it in a major way, building transmission and generation.”
The technology behind the Lake Kivu project is a bit of a mystery to me but, as Fox explained it, Contour Global will build a gas extraction facility that will be mounted on a big barge. It will then siphon gases to the surface from a depth of about 350 meters.
“If you can picture a champagne bottle that’s open, where the bubbles rise to the surface and they drag the liquid with it, that’s what’s happening in the lake," Fox said.
The barge will process the liquid, separate out methane gas (CH4), which is the principal component of natural gas, and return the CO2 safely to the lake. The gas will then be sent by pipeline to a power plant in lakeside town of Kibuye. Methane emitted from coal mines and landfills is often burned to make electricity.
In fact, as Fox explained, the technology behind the Lake Kivu power plan isn't that complex. What's harder is getting the project built in landlocked nation with limited infrastructure. “We’re 1900 kilometers from the closest seaport. The logistics of the job are going to be more challenging than the project itself,” he said.
Then again, getting the job done could literally be a matter of life and death. "In the next 200 years, if nothing is done, the lake could erupt," Fox said.
Just as crucial are the potential economic benefits. I've followed the Rwanda story since visiting the country in 2005 with Rick Warren, the evangelical minister, and seeing first-hand the aftermath of the genocide there. In recent years, U.S. corporations, including Starbucks, Costco and Google, have taken an special interest in the country known as the Land of a Thousand Hills (see Why CEOs Love Rwanda). Rwanda's business-friendly president, Paul Kagame, even spoke at a Starbucks annual meeting. A can-do spirit animates their efforts, As Rob Glaser, the tech entrepreneur, once told me: "If you make a Rwanda a better place, you haven't solved all the world's problems but you have demonstrated that the problems can be solved."
But there are troubling reports coming out of Rwanda, too. The Kagame administration has repressed Rwandan journalists, advocacy groups and opposition leaders, according to Amnesty International. Just this month, Human Rights Watch said that the regime's opponents face increasing threats, attacks, and harassment in advance of Rwanda's August 2010 presidential election. Some of this reflects the lingering effects of the 1994 genocide which killed an estimated 800,000 people in about 100 days.
In that context, the Contour Global project is particularly important because economic growth and democracy often go hand-in-hand.The relationship between economic growth and democracy isn't simple but there's considerable evidence that "countries are likely to become democratic if economic growth succeeds in raising their average incomes to high enough levels," according to this analysis by economist Gary Becker.
And, of course,a growing economy needs access to electricity. Google, for example, has a partnership with Rwanda's schools and ministries that will have more if Internet access becomes widespread. As I write this blogpost on my laptop in a coffee shop with free wi-fi in Bethesda, Md., it's easy to forget that one-quarter of the world's population lacks access to electricity.
Making an on-off switch part of their lives is transformative. That's why Bill Fox, who has been in the power business for 30 years, is so jazzed about his work.
"This is a great opportunity for us as Contour Global," Fox said. "Obviously, we’re getting paid but it’s almost like a mission to be benefiting countries like Rwanda.”