Bar graph of the relative net carbon usage per kWh of power output energy storage

Carbon-negative renewable gas is a Climate Changer

Is Africa’s Lake Kivu also a huge complex energy storage device?

Adjacent to this lake, Lake Victoria is like a gigantic hydro-power battery. But Kivu’s not just a hydro battery, it contains the world’s biggest bio-digester. It’s doing a double storage job with water and renewable gas. The combination enables 40 megatons of carbon emission reductions every year, while Kivu can also generate 1.2 GW of power on demand.

So how does hydro with carbon negative renewable natural gas (RNG) become a real big climate changer? Has nature provided the potential to get the countries around the lake to beyond carbon neutral? Is it in the “really-good-for-the-planet” category of climate solutions? How can it also help this gorilla’s habitat survive and thrive?

We illustrate this as a leading example of how “Carbon negative” projects can be the super-achievers in the great climate challenge of our times.

The renewable natural gas contribution

Even methane from cattle can become part of the solution. Let’s break this argument down further. RNG is known for providing carbon-neutral energy. Take biogas from agricultural waste, where the USA is targeting 40 megatons of carbon reduction by 2030. This one project on Lake Kivu in Rwanda and DRC achieves the USA’s RNG target by itself.

So how does gas recovery prevent gigatons of natural background carbon emissions? What if we can add a side benefit of reversing destruction of vast equatorial forests to keep that carbon sink viable? In reality these benefits are a step-up, adding to being carbon negative. So “RNG Neg” can be a vital, although commonly overlooked climate change solution. The solution has huge scale-ability by reducing similar methane emissions.

Let’s look at this specific methane source, created by nature without human intervention. Importantly, this a case is where one can both extract natural gas and reverse carbon emissions. As the add-on in this special case, it can replace forest biomass as the region’s primary domestic fuel within 10 – 15 years. This change in fuel takes deforestation pressure off the mountain gorilla habitat in the Virunga Mountains in Africa. So RNG is an opportunity helping to buy time for the gorilla habitat and recreating a vast carbon sink.

More than that, the graphic below shows how we get to the hoped-for impact of buying time in the Climate Change context. Compare it to other methods listed for negative carbon emissions. Most lack much capacity or even credence. Well, this unusual one wasn’t on the list. It should be in time, not just as a one-off.

How carbon-negative is this renewable solution?

Climate activists commonly advocate that natural gas is not “low-carbon” enough and not part of the climate solution. Natural gas suppliers field demands to remove any claim of having real “low-carbon” investments. The louder calls are to advocate the use of hydrogen, or PV or wind. But while hydrogen is in many ways an ideal fuel, it comes with user difficulties, dangers of explosion and higher supply and distribution cost. It’s costly to transport, has low energy density and is near impossible to move by pipeline.

We should differentiate clean methane sources from conventional natural gas though. Some of them, like ours, can even be strongly negative on carbon emissions. That’s a long way better for the planet than neutral.

Purpose for Kivu gas extraction is evolving

The original Hydragas solution was needs-driven. It was created to deal with a threat at unprecedented humanitarian and environmental levels. Without acting on this threat in our lifetimes, millions of lives were at risk. It comes also with a one-time, catastrophic environmental hit. We can avert a one-day, 2-6 gigaton carbon emission by preventing lake Kivu erupting. In a relative sense, the climate impact is a bonus on top of all the lives saved, but still meaningful on a global scale.

Now sometimes we may think we have a great invention to talk about. But more importantly to market it, should we frame it in terms that resonate ? Ours has been a 20-year pioneering pursuit. So it isn’t just any cleantech project using available innovative technology. We now know it to be carbon negative. So it stands out as a high-impact climate changer with added carbon credits value.

It took decades to figure out how to do this project safely and effectively. We filled a need where effective recovery technology did not exist. It overtook an older extraction idea that never had such impact. We turned it around with an inventive breakthrough. Our motivation was at first about solving a gas extraction problem. Then it became about saving lives. Then it grew to be about turning around carbon emissions. The line must now be: “It saves millions of lives, averting gigatons of carbon emissions, making a country or two carbon-negative”. How is that going to sell the concept to investors?

Labeling is key; Can we call it a grid-scale battery?

So should we re-frame it further? We can make it focused on the climate change problem of the day – energy storage. Should we now claim how; “We see Lake Kivu as a giant battery with 263 TWh of renewable energy storage.” We can add that; “This battery trickle-charges itself at 2,600 GWh per year.” What is the key data to place with that label? Renewable gas can produce 600 MW of clean power for next fifty years.

Like a good battery we can stretch it out longer though. After the need to drop the danger level of gas build-up, for say 25 years, we can then produce over 200 MW of renewable, clean power for centuries.

Add a 576 MW hydro-power investment to the same lake

But there’s more to add to this battery. This same lake has been producing hydro power, from an old run-of-river station at its outlet, for over 50 years. The Ruzizi river cascade drops another 700 metres to Lake Tanganyika just 50km south of the lake’s outlet. A series of dam-free hydropower projects on this cascade can also deliver 576 MW. So the two projects in combination can yield 1200 MW for the next 25-50 years. The longer view is perhaps for over 800 MW in perpetuity. That’s one big, long-life battery!

An equatorial lake and a volcano,  a recipe for an energy opportunity or a nightmare
An equatorial lake and a volcano, a recipe for an energy opportunity or a nightmare?

So “whose definition is this definition?”

As we hear in the climate debate, any “natural gas” is placed in a basket of contentious climate value. It is grouped and assumed to be formed with its fossil relatives coal and oil. Let’s flex a defining piece of that narrative. In talking of semantics and messaging, what of biogenic gas? Does Mesozoic-age fossil-formed gas rank the same as “fresh” biogas from cow manure in bio-digesters? They are both GHGs. Its formation followed similar pathways, millions of years apart. I studied this comparison with some global experts. Today our conclusion must be that RNG categorises itself best as carbon negative renewable gas.

For this lake, we can specify and design systems to avoid any leaks in production and most delivery systems. This is where conventional natural gas has a poor record with leaks and emissions. The conventional gas supply chain has historically been a major source of fugitive emissions.

The carbon dioxide and methane in Lake Kivu in Africa is biogenic. It’s freshly brewed. Algae consumes dissolved carbon dioxide to grow biomass. Biomass biodegrades in anoxic depths to make methane and carbon dioxide. It uses the acetate process and also methanogens. The world’s largest bio-digester is part of a cycle making carbon-negative, renewable gas. Can we continue down this defining path and call it a bio-battery, powered by carbon-negative renewable gas?

CCUS: Is it a bio-battery or bio-digester?

Most of the gas in Lake Kivu now in situ is less than a hundred years old. A resource of tow gigatons of CO2e is already present. The bio-digester accumulates more new gas at another 0.5% a year. I verified this storage calculation by doing the formal calculation, as defined, while writing up a proposal for Breakthrough Energy Ventures competition. It is one of a number of initiatives where I was looking for funding for the Lake Kivu project.

The essential action on us now, with a GHG reserve building up, is to first harvest it to make it safe. The second it is to combust that methane in power generation or in home cooking. A third action can be to re-absorb the carbon dioxide made, into the deep lake. Here it is substrate for microbiology that can turn back to methane. A virtuous green cycle is thus possible. Again, it sounds like it works as a battery. Like any battery, its design and operation have room for enhancement. We could speed it up, but with due caution.

So we can treat it like a giant battery. We keep it in reserve and deplete it when we choose to and we are able to. We are now capable to do it safely, finally. Now is the time we must do it urgently to constrain climate change.

Defining CCUS

Must we prove to skeptics that it’s renewable and it has negative emissions? I met recently with Foresight, a group that champions clean energy solutions. I had this question: “If the gas is naturally biogenic, but not extracted continuously, is it still renewable?” The answer is yes, becasue it can be stored. But that answer would not be so if it leaks out to atmosphere. But it’s fully trapped. This is a huge, natural CCUS reservoir that can store 450 bcm of gas (at the safe-side limit). It is the definition of Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (CCUS).

What is the risk if we don’t harvest this gas?

Actually, we must first deplete this reservoir (or battery) by 50% now for safety reasons. That is why we must extract methane for the next 25 years to use up half the partial pressure (or volume) of gas in place. Thereafter we can discharge it indefinitely at a lower rate, closer to its natural recharge rate. That would be sensible. But our first order of business lowers the risk of eruption by a factor of two. It makes the lake 100 times safer. We do this by depleting gas from the upper portions of the layered lake’s depths. These portions give rise to the most risk as they have the highest partial pressure.

With some caution we can research further into “farming” gas generation. We understand the micro-biology and bio-chemical engineering pathways of using the returned CO2 to generate new methane faster. Key to these actions will be in managing the nutrients flowing to the shallow biozone to enhance algae growth. This is done by water lifted from the nutrient-rich depths. That is the key to multiplying the energy potential in the long-term.

Safety Action: Preventing a catastrophic lake eruption

This is a very high-stakes resource management game. Those gigatons of gas, if left until they saturate the lake’s capacity, will erupt. The world’s limnology experts describe the mechanism as a limnic eruption. It’s much quieter, almost silent, but could be 50 times more deadly than Krakatoa’s explosion in 1883. Many casualties may result from lake tsunamis caused by a giant, surging column of gas and water. But it’s the toxic and asphyxiating blanket of cloud emanating from that eruption that is much more deadly.

So, gas extraction is our pre-emptive action to mitigate the chance of a catastrophe. It has to be done properly though. Some amateurish and ill-considered methods were used and more were planned. These are worse than doing nothing. They break all the safety rules and bring danger forward.

The safety plan is still built on a concept of removing the bulk of the lake’s methane in 50 years. After the first harvest, we would have then paused for perhaps 100 – 150 years to allow gas to regenerate. As the methane gas inventory would reach a viable concentration again, we can begin to extract once more. That’s still in the harvesting plan. The concept is written up in the rules for how Lake Kivu must be developed. But a review commencing in 2019 may revisit some of these options.

What’s in the envelope we evaluate?

The gases are produced biogenically in the world’s largest, contained bio-digester. Lake Kivu became one of the largest, manageable carbon sinks over millennia. I wrote it up in a breakthrough ventures application. I worked out the data in a painfully complex spreadsheet. It is a government-designed calculator to determine the carbon SSRs. There were guidelines. i.e. Use ISO 14064-2 Section 5.3 “Identifying GHG sources, sinks and reservoirs relevant to the project”. It was highly explicit about every value to be used.

I had already worked out the answer in 20 minutes by normal means. It took 150 hours using this standardized government-style spreadsheet. The answers were 1.01% different. The specified calculator gave the modestly higher answer. This is miniscule compared to the arguable range of tons CO2 per ton of CH4; the currently published range is between 25 and 103. There is a long explanation about which number applies when, based on when the reduction is most needed. For simplicity the calculator used 28. Using this range the averted carbon emissions varies from 1.9 to 6.3 gigatons. The high end of this range is very close to the total annual US emissions in 2014, published by the EPA, of 6.89 gigatons.

Why make it so complicated? Was it to ensure one didn’t cheat? In essence it defines the full envelope. It assesses GHGs and SSRs with a cumbersome methodology. One even includes the GHG impact of building and then demolishing the equipment. One must account for displaced energy when switching to a new source. It presents the data in a spreadsheet common for all applicants. But getting it done is way worse than doing your taxes. The outcome still shows this renewable gas is carbon negative.

Proving renewable gas is carbon negative

The adjacent figure (click on it to expand) shows L-R the improving trend of power generation from coal to natural gas. Hausfather presented the data to show the US power industry gains from replacing coal with natural gas. I added the final bar to show how the proposed Lake Kivu project outperforms. The linked article questions if natural gas is a bridge fuel to renewables. I would argue that RNG is itself a game changer that goes much further than carbon neutrality. But how can these special cases be replicated on a global scale? There are opportunities for scale-up of averting major emissions in my next post.

I added the final bar to show how the proposed Lake Kivu project outperforms. The linked article questions if natural gas is a bridge fuel to renewables. I would argue that RNG is itself a game changer that goes much further than carbon neutrality. It transforms from being a clean gas source to the most powerful, renewable battery out there.

But how can these special cases be replicated on a global scale? There are opportunities for scale-up of averting major emissions in my next post. That means going after the biggest resource of all, methane in the oceans.

But let’s not forget the gorillas. Before even considering deforestation, Africa’s equatorial forests are under threat and so is the gorilla’s mountain domain. Apart from land pressures, the region uses firewood and charcoal for 80% of its non-transport energy needs. Any action that reduces deforestation is also about protecting their shrinking domain. RNG will help, so let’s make carbon negative renewable gas.

What message sells to investors?

This project needs investment. This type and scale of project is desperately needed. People need to be assured of safety where they live. The gorillas need their forest back. So now we need to pitch the investment, but also the story to investors. The question is how? It’s a great impact investment with high returns. But they’re a skeptical lot, as they must be. Any claim we can make to amp up a valuation has to be discounted or countered by them when negotiating an investment deal.

This much carbon mitigation (whether 40 or up to 130 megatons per year) can be worth a lot. So, inevitably as founders, we should get quizzed on this point. And so it has been. We like to appeal to the investors’ better selves too, with the humanitarian and environmental impacts. The Lake Kivu project has huge impact. The priorities are first to people safety, then to the environment and finally to the community’s bottom lines.

How to sell “carbon negative renewable gas”?

As an aside, I would be interested in the stats on this. How many pledges are made to fund renewables? As many as are calling on others to do the funding? How many are calling for funding negative carbon projects? I have seen hundreds. Is it a cheap way to get position on the bandwagon? What ever came of Canada’s Prime Minister’s 2015 pledge at COP-21 in Paris to fund $2.6 B of clean energy projects in the developing world? How much more is being promised at COP-25 in Madrid?

On the other hand, how many of the valid start-ups with projects eventually do get funded? Worse still, how many are not? Who, among many innovators and developers, crosses the proverbial “valley of death” illustrated here by FCA? Where do these developers, looking and pitching for these funds, get the money? Their enthusiasm is more evident than that of corresponding investment funds. For that answer, it’s probably from intermediaries.

I should rather be an intermediary

This clean energy funding marketplace has seen a proliferation of financing intermediaries. They are aggregators of new project prospects, those that can’t afford to attend all the conferences. They’re not there to raise funds as start-ups, but to raise bigger tranches of funds to fund them. They step in, providing aggregating vehicles that can spend hard-to-pitch-for funds. They are able charge fees for their disbursement of other people’s money to projects. In doing so they are earning a 5% slice of the investment without carrying all the downsides of failed investments. It’s a sweet gig.

Perhaps the tactic for start-ups and developers lies in how to frame our projects for both primary or intermediary investors. What do they want to invest in? We need to connect with them in any way that works. So let’s present the options. Let’s label it a giant energy storage system or series of clean projects with gigatons of carbon-negative emissions reduction.We’ll colour it any way the market wishes, as long as we get to fund it. Some ways just cost more than others, but that’s still way better than zero investment.

Lake Kivu 3D Stallite image by Christoph Hormann gas-to-power

Climate change: Clean energy in Rwanda’s future

Gorilla image formed by the clouds abobve Mt Nyiragongo in the DRC
Spot-the-Gorilla: image formed by volcanic steam above Mt Nyiragongo in DRC

Few countries have achieved a totally clean energy future on non-transport energy. Germany tried with its Energiewende for 20 years. Norway has had that status for years. But Germany 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 soon enough to meet climate change goals?

How a country makes a clean energy future?

My view is that for that same ambitious clean energy plan, Rwanda can do it too. Yes, and quicker too. Ironically it’s Rwanda’s lack of coal and oil that helps the country get to it faster. We know the country has a wish to achieve this clean energy 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 key things: (1) Few of the wrong-choice power systems already in place, and (2) several transformational clean energy assets like hydro-power. The country can make that future a reality without over-crowding its landscape with wind turbines, solar panels and too many interconnecting power-lines. Rwanda has truly beautiful landscape. It does not need that sort of blot on its scenery. For that matter, it doesn’t need the noise of turbine blades disturbing the incredibly quiet nights. Noise would especially disturb the windier mountain domain of the gorillas, a global treasure.

The scope of the energy transition to clean power

Political Map of Rwanda showing Lake Kivu Location
Map showing Rwanda with Lake Kivu location

Indeed the country, together with the Kivu provinces of DRC, can build a sustainable, clean energy future. Better still, it would soon have built a 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 years. The idea is fully sustainable for over half a century. In the same 5 years they can demobilise the hired temporary-power systems that runs on imported diesel. With enough clean power installed, once the existing HFO-fueled power plant is placed on standby, the country can run on clean power alone.

Hydro power and RNG power for a clean energy future?

So this region is poised to be a clean energy bright spot in the heart of Africa. One key resource enabling their sustainable, clean energy future is Lake Kivu. It’s energy potential is a unique case among Africa’s Great Lakes. It’s a high-altitude source for both hydro and renewable biogas energy (RNG). But there is a greater differentiator for this energy source. This is where nature has taken a millennium to craft a unique, water-borne gas reservoir.

Think of Kivu as a giant, clean battery that was a gift from nature. Its combined hydro and gas potential can supply up to 1200 MW. This extends for over 50 years and beyond. In terms of energy already stored in Kivu’s gas reserves, it is the equivalent of a 260 TWh battery. Nature is “trickle-charging” this battery at the rate of 2600 GWh per year. That’s huge. The lake’s output potential is six times Rwanda’s current peak power usage rate in 2019. A higher ratio applies when calculated for the Kivu provinces in the Eastern DRC. Clean power is just part of the upside. For the region, so too is cheaper power, great export potential and as much as $100 B in 50-year power revenues. This number is before any carbon credits are added.

Rapid economic boost, despite high cost transport fuels

It must be clear that the full development of the Kivu potential has massively positive impacts on the regional economy. Resultant increases in the regional GDP may be higher than 50% from projects completing Kivu’s potential. This potential growth is calculated with minor accounting for secondary growth impacts from cheaper and more available power.

For now we do not include transport fuels in Rwanda’s clean energy future plan. Synthetic gas-to-liquid fuels can be made from biogas, but the capital intensity and durability of hydrocarbon-fueled cars is not so assured. Rather power up battery-driven vehicles for that longer term. 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. When Dubai exports used electric vehicles too, they too may become affordable. EVs should work well in the energy mix. Charging them with cheaper, surplus power at night can even out the daily power demand.

Can natural gas production reduce carbon emissions?

Sure it can, although it may seem paradoxical. We read of green activism that rejects natural gas as part of the climate solution, or any clean energy future. The critics classify it as low-carbon but still a climate threat. But in this case they couldn’t be more wrong. The impact of producing Lake Kivu’s biogas applies a sharp twist to that logic.

If we don’t extract gas, the lake will eventually super-saturate with gases and erupt. This means catastrophically. Should it, and depending on when it erupts, the lake can release 2 – 6* gigatons of carbon equivalent in just one day. Therefore the twist of logic is that avoidance of an eruption creates 2 – 6 gigatons of carbon credits to the project. It is a climate winner, in a class of its own. See the graphic for impact relative to other fuel sources’ net carbon impact. Click on the graphic. 1 kWh of Kivu Power fully compensates for the carbon emissions from 5 kWh of coal generation.

We know how to produce this lake’s gas at Hydragas, more safely and productively than anyone else. Our updated solution is fully designed, tested and ready to build. The outcomes are fantastic, high impact, with great benefit to the country. However, we must also be aware what not to do with this potential bonanza. Big problems arise from harvesting its gas the wrong way, or worse still, not harvesting the gas at all.

Staggering numbers for climate impact from using Kivu

Thinking in GHG terms, if Lake Kivu stayed undeveloped it will be a major , one-time, carbon-emission threat. For this baseline case, i.e. do nothing, it will erupt and emit 2 – 6* gigatons of carbon. (* The difference is where one calculates in the range of 25 to 103 tons carbon per ton methane emitted.) That disaster’s probability rises exponentially, but it can happen at any time within the next 70 years. Rising methane content is the trigger. It is also the big climate impact. The USA emits 6-7 gigatons per year, by comparison.

In our proposal, this threat is balanced by going ahead and producing its 60 bcm (billion cubic metre) natural gas inventory and any newly generated gas until the harvesting is done. Then we must use it as discussed here. If done successfully, this avoids and averts 2 – 6 gigatons of carbon emissions. This is a twin impact solution, a positive safety outcome that can also earn the stakeholders huge GHG (carbon) credits for that carbon tonnage.

Clean hydro-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 perhaps 600 MW. This thermal power combined with hydro provides nearly 1200 MW of clean, renewable power.

The Ruzizi River cascade for hydro 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

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.

Renewable 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. Oceans store biogas and natural gas seeps as solid methane hydrates. They are to date untouched, difficult to recover. But we will modify and build the next generation of our gas extraction technology to produce it after more R&D.

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 our business. It can produce enough biogas to supply the region’s power. In fact it can make 800 MW of low-carbon power for 50 years or longer. Currently used technologies can do just 15% of that output.

A World Bank accolade for development ideas

The GGFR team in the World Bank has credited our Hydragas team for developing a practical, low-cost model for gas distribution for the 3rd World. 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 replicate 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%.

The Vilankulo model from Mozambique

Power generator working on gas in Vilankulo, Mozambique
Power generator working on gas in Vilankulo, Mozambique

The World Bank adopted this “Vilankulo Model”. It became 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. Flared gas would be used to power up local communities. It was planned to provide cooking gas and small power. 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. Its 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.

Satellite map of the city of Goma north of Lake Kivu, with its 1 million population
Satellite map of the city of Goma north of Lake Kivu,

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 for a population of a million people.

Any shortage gets worse because of a seasonal drop in generation. The lake overflow drops 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.

Rapid change from continuous blackouts to a stable grid

Up to 2006, Rwanda’s power blackouts were everyday experiences. They lasted 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 how the rural and even urban population was asleep by 7pm. But lighting was simply too costly to run. An exception was Goma’s bars on the DRC side. Unlike much of Rwanda, Goma came alive at night as the city partied.

To support their lifestyle they use gasoline-fueled generators. These are common for the few connected users and businesses in Goma who can affors lighting. The bars always need light, music and cold beer. It was a shock to see how much mobile phone users in Goma pay vendors for a recharge. Per kW , it’s possibly the highest power tariff extorted anywhere. Only government entities and the well connected enjoyed access to grid power.

Constraints on power supply

Power in the Great Lakes region was and also remains too pricey for most users. It was more than five times higher than say 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 fixed rates in Rwanda from USc 22-26/kWh. But just 6% of the population had a power connection in 2006.

Today there is much more available power. It is priced at more granular rates by REG-EUCL. It sells at graduated rates for domestic and industrial users. Power connections are up to 51% in 2018. Also, time-of-use tariffs have been introduced for industrial customers with smart metering.

Growing usage is held back by high cost

But pricing pressure continues to severely constrain usage. Low usage is a concern for the utility. Average consumption is just 56 kWh per year for households. This compares to 1800-2000 kWh per year in Botswana and Mauritius. These two are comparably growing economies. Clearly households shave usage to a bare minimum, typically for lighting and electronics only. Charcoal and firewood are the costly, but most economic choice for heating and cooking.

In the DRC, regulated domestic power tariffs are far lower than industrial rates. However, DRC’s utility SNEL, has severely limited power supply to Goma. Just 2 MW of grid supply serves a city of a million people. This is less than typical city blocks use in developed countries. Domestic users received no supply despite paying a connection fee. Comment on pricing is a moot issue in a no-supply circumstance. If SNEL restores supply to more users, pricing must respond to markets rather than distorted regulation.

A clean energy future needs smart solutions

Hydragas studied and modelled energy supply needs of Rwanda and DRC as part of our gas production studies. We prepared feasibility assessments on energy competitiveness and market size. The market was price sensitive. Our recommended fix was to supply combined power and gas feeds into households. Power alone could not satisfy the needs affordably.

The connected customers would preferably use it for essential lighting and electronics. Charcoal is preferred for cooking. But the poorer rural users consume only firewood and no power. Gas, once distributed to homes, can supply the bulk of energy needs in almost all homes. Combined gas and power can be supplied more cheaply and effectively than its alternatives. But the utilities are faced with the cost of connecting two energy sources.

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 low power factors for 7-8 months a year. It’s partly due to few months of sustained winds and short sunny seasons.

Balancing thermal energy and electrical power

But for the country’s generation fleet, it should look to retire its hired diesel generation fleet first. It has been its generation mainstay, but the cost is higher than the retail pricing. To achieve 100% clean energy, the utility can re-deploy HFO thermal units as stand-by or for peaking power. Kivu gas-to-power can supply the base-load demand, reliably and cost-effectively. With further capacity, this source can later supply export grid power through the East African Power Pool. This is a pathway to expanding the region’s clean energy future.

Kivu gas can and should supply thermal energy. Better still, use renewable natural gas or RNG for this purpose. It is a cheap and convenient heat energy for households and industry. A key impact from gas use is to halt or reverse deforestation.

Cooking on RNG to reduce deforestation
How renewable natural gas replaces biomass

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 HDPE gas supply network. A medium-pressure network is an expanded form of the Vilankulo concept. It works because Rwanda is small and the most densely populated country in Africa. This therefore reduces the capital cost per user. We advocate the Vilankulo concept, compatible with newer US and EU-based design standard for pipelines.

A simple commercial model for our times

We prepared feasibility reports in the 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, had a Norwegian expert review our town supply study.

To our amusement, the queries he raised included the following: Why no fleet of vehicles for the utility staff? What was the budget for an office block, or for a proper 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? This is a very euro-centric or North American view. His list would have more than quadrupled the project cost and made gas unaffordable. But in Vilankulo, a man on a bicycle could carry most needs for a house installation and he could install it in an hour.

Simple lessons from Nigeria on commercial strategy

This was where EU standard household installations were too expensive. Our gas project team was looking at how to cut out costs in Mozambique. Here revenues would take five years or more to pay off installation costs. We found that half the capital cost was metering. Why even install a gas meter that costs 5 years gas usage? It will never pay back. Why specify the legacy household gas fitting to be the same as Europe? In Africa, the cost of that household gas installation will exceed the cost of the house itself.

Our commercial pricing model originated in Nigeria, in power metering. A trip to Lagos at the time gave us a clue. Apartment landlords had addressed the same problem with electrical usage. Instead of a meter per apartment, they inspected each tenants connections. A light bulb was one point, a stove 15 points, a fan five points etc. Each tenant’s total was divided into the apartment’s and multiplied by the total bill. It worked for everyone. Indeed it was widely accepted as fair and runs in most cities there. Because of how logically it works, any cheating both hurts and is visible to one’s neighbours.

Delivering the clean energy future, sustainably

This post starts with high ideals and the grand plan for a clean energy future in Rwanda and Eastern DRC. They make a difference at country-scale. The concepts on how this is set up are also explained. So I have dived into the detail to explain some of the simpler concepts to roll out clean energy, especially for gas distribution. These are real, and have gone live.

The plan’s methods have been adopted by the World Bank as their best practical example for the GGFR initiative. This flaring reduction initiative was a plan to implement in 38 poorer countries with stranded gas. In fact the plan is to make the operation of gas supply and even power supply cheaper to poorer users. These methods are also simple for small communities to implement with entry-level contractors and businesses. There is no need for multi-national utilities to be part of the solution.

Legacy utility systems are less needed. Also, commerce is simplified by using cellphone apps to manage billing and management. East Africa already leads the world in adoption of mobile systems for banking and payments. These approaches go some way to making energy more affordable, cleaner and more sustainable.


The leader of the Sabyinho gorilla family group in the Virunga mountains in 2003
The Leader of the Sabyinho Family in the Virunga Mountains

P.S. I noted on the cover photo to this post the image of a “Big Gorilla” formed by the cloud. The photo is one of mine of Lake Kivu. It is over ten years old. I was staring at it, thinking of how this is the land of the mountain gorillas when I saw it. The volcano is 14,000 feet high, and the imagined “gorilla” must be 25,000 feet or more. It is an icon of the region and I hope it means well. 🙂

Children Living Near Lake Kivu Climate Funding

Stand-out Solutions to Climate Change Problems

Lake Kivu 3D Stallite image by Christoph Hormann
Lake Kivu 3D Image (c Christoph Hormann)

Hydragas: Is it a New Economy Solution for Climate Change?

Hydragas is targeting recognition as a real solution provider for climate change. See here if what we say about Hydragas Energy’s solution to prevent climate change is worthy. Below is the challenge link to Bloomberg’s New Economy Web-site. So, should we be in Beijing this November to present our story? Read below for the qualifying Q&A.

The Bloomberg New Economy Forum

We are living at a pivotal moment in history. Economic power is shifting dramatically from the West to new economies. New markets and new leaders are exercising unprecedented influence over the course of economic change on the global scale. While complex challenges persist, new opportunities are presenting themselves each day. It will take a new community of leaders thinking, innovating and working together to create the thriving, inclusive global economy of the future.

A new community for the new economy

A world in transition presents unprecedented challenges such as climate change. Luckily, the solutions are out there. We want to know about them, scale them, and make them the new normal. Seven solutions will be presented at the New Economy Forum in Beijing this November … one could be yours.

The Problem

Who is affected by this problem?

Millions of people, the worst affected, may die suddenly in one catastrophic incident. They could be swallowed by a dense, asphyxiating, toxic cloud. It would blanket their homes like a fast-moving morning fog.

Unless we all do the right thing, this forecast vent can occur on any single day in the next 68 years. Without the right intervention it would inflict a cruel, swift and brutal outcome from a single, major climate change event.

Many of the four million people living in the zone will number among the unsuspecting victims. The zone is the Western Rift Valley, around Lake Kivu in Africa. The victims will be anyone, young or old, mostly the rural poor. Timing of this event depends on the trigger. It may even delay until it’s only the children or grandchildren of those living there today. But most victims will die on a single fateful day.

Survivors are those that will run uphill within moments to escape the in-rushing cloud. To give them a chance, warning sirens should sound off in every community. But there are none there yet.

The next affected would be the adjacent population, people outside the cloud’s reach. They live nearby the valley, but fatefully out of the kill-zone on the day. Millions more live in this second zone, the most affected of the survivors. But at the time of the incident, they are just helpless bystanders, unable to intervene. These victims would suffer trauma, loss of family, disruption and disease, starvation and confusion.

How many are affected by the problem?

Casualty numbers will vary. The most lives will be saved by using an escape plan and warning siren. People must learn to climb to high ground to escape, hundreds of metres above the lake. It is like disaster planning for a coastal tsunami. We expect millions may die, most in minutes, overcome by the speed and toxicity of the cloud. Survival depends on how high up the hills they live, how fast and high they flee. It may even depend on the wind direction that day.

Classic Photo of Mt Nyiragongo from Lake Kivu
Mt Nyiragongo above Goma over lake Kivu

Cities closest to the water, including Goma with its million residents on flat lava plains, would have the most difficulty escaping. Countless dead will be strewn in the streets within minutes. One can visualize these streets looking like Pompeii or the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Try to imagine a disaster with four or five times the million casualties of Rwanda’s genocide. But imagine that in one day, not the 100 days of mid-1994.

The entire valley could remain uninhabitable for a long time. This can be weeks or perhaps months. A strong wind only can disperse the cloud, as the valley is ringed by hills except to the south. No entry should be allowed into the affected zone, not without gas testing. Controlling the situation requires an enormous civil defense effort. Only properly equipped rescuers should enter the zone with such risk of death or disease.

Eventually the world will feel the impact, beyond the news cycle of the death toll. Climate change effects will occur around the globe from a one-day release of 2-3 gigatons of carbon.

What is the problem this solution addresses? 

The problem is averting a vast, unprecedented, existential threat. Lake Kivu is an enigma. It’s a huge, deep mountain lake, dammed by live volcanoes. It has both a legacy and further potential to erupt catastrophically. The lake’s has a unique ability to contain a huge gas build-up within its 1600-foot depth. We also know that the gas will eventually erupt, as a dense and toxic cloud. This limnic eruption can create a vast humanitarian disaster and climate change incident.

The lake is layered with five thick strata of varying density water. Each layer’s density increases with minerals dissolved from lava. These strata trap gas. The density gradients separate them, sealing in the gas. The top layer is oxygen-rich, home to fish and algae. But the deeper 90% supports only anoxic life forms. In there are micro-organisms that convert sinking dead biomass into gases.

After a millennium of calm, a clear trend is that gases will saturate the lake by 2088. But before these next 69 years pass, a seismic or volcanic event can preemptively trigger an eruption. Those events can supply the required burst of energy.

Risk levels of eruption risk levels increase faster every year, until 2088. Our solution must be to prevent an eruption. From 2007-2010 the world’s leading experts studied the problem and alternate solutions. They debated the developing outcomes for 3 years. Then they wrote up the rules. It was more complex problem than they first imagined.

Why have other attempts to solve this problem failed or been incomplete?

Photo of Gas Separator on the 1965 Gas Extraction Plant on Lake Kivu's Cap Rubone
UPEGAZ 1965 Gas Plant

Other attempts were made to fix the problem. At first, in 1960, the level of threat was unknown. Gas extraction was seen as a need to produce energy, not a means to prevent a disaster. Extraction started in 1965 when a Belgian company, UCB, designed and built a plant. But it was just an experimental shore-based plant, too small to make a lasting negative impact. It didn’t have the capacity to keep pace with gas formation. While the 1960s gas extraction method was an imperfect solution, it was pioneering. But it was small, inefficient and wasteful. Above all, it couldn’t resolve the lake safety issues, as the problem identification and solutions were only finalized 50 years later.

But trouble came when new investors copied and expanded the legacy engineering concept. For instance in 2008, “Kivu Power 1” started up a floating, platform-based version. However this unit struggled to perform, experiencing riser failures, with below design quality and output. It shut down in 2015.

What is the potential impact of a failing to address the problem?

In 2008 another company began to develop a 10-times larger version. But that took 7 years to build and start-up. At this scale it manifested more detectable safety and compliance problems. For instance, the design over-used gas resources, with low recovery of methane and creating a worrying disturbance of the lake strata. Even fully developed, it can only recover under 25% of the lake’s potential output. As a solution it was not doing enough for climate change and perhaps making it worse than hoped.

Above all, this plant is seriously non-compliant with the lake’s rules-of-use, compromising safety and environmental needs. After 3 years operation, monitoring data shows it was irreversibly damaging the lake’s density gradients. But compliance to all these rules are key to lake safety. Therefore the environmental authorities are weighing an order to shut it down to re-equip.

The New Economy community should embrace solutions to this problem because?

Rwanda is a New Economy country; first in the world to ban single-use plastics. Although 3rd World, it has the drive and ambition to improve its standing. For instance its economy has 15 years among world-leaders of growth. It successfully worked to protect the mountain gorillas and reverse their slide to extinction. It is also reversing deforestation, but needs an alternate form of biomass for renewable energy. While it is the most densely populated country in Africa, it is also one of the cleanest. Rating agencies show it as one of the safest and least corrupt countries globally. But the lake’s problem can before long compromise the country’s safety.

Rwanda, like its western neighbour on Lake Kivu, have an opportunity to propel their economies with renewables. For instance they can power 90% or more of their non-transport energy use with clean energy. They can switch from 45% imported oil to renewable biogas for power generation. The resource is available in the lake, where it has accumulated for 1000 years. However, the solution must include successfully extracting it and using it. The climate change problem is more completely resolved if Lake Kivu methane is fully used as renewable energy.

If left unchecked, climate change threatens Rwanda with rising temperatures and droughts. In past millennia the biggest eruption risks for Lake Kivu came with prolonged droughts. Public and private sector leaders have identified the need for this gas development, as it can have a great impact on their sustainable future. Hydragas has partnered with and explored our approach with government for many years. So we’re now ready to launch this solution, a concrete initiative to save lives, building a safer and cleaner country.

The Solution

What promising existing solution to this problem would you like to submit?

At the core of our product, the solution we will deliver is innovation. It’s the excitation that gets gas to more energetically separate out of water. For instance our exciter unit can make soda cans explode.

The complete product is now ready to implement, after 17 years of research, plant engineering and design development. For us the easier element was innovating, thus reinventing a dysfunctional legacy process to degas the lake. After that we built a pilot-project on the lake. We had to ensure it worked and assured others too. Feasibility studies followed. In this way we determined how to design, construct and operate a plant at scale. Because of this successful work program, it’s ready to achieve that promise.

However, in building full-scale underwater process plants, we work within a complex lake system. This complexity has some potentially great dangers. We must monitor for any subtle changes that occur with water flows in and out of these strata, during degassing. Our diligence test lies in running a demo plant at full-scale for proof of performance. This is our critical next step.

We’re raising $30 million of project capital to build it. Then, with this proof in hand, we can install up to 200 of these modules around the lake. They will be grouped with ten to a control platform, with each platform piping gas ashore. Some are up to 15 miles from onshore power plants or the gas network. We’ll build these facilities to use or distribute the gas. The need is more than to prevent eruptions, it’s for a novel source of clean energy too. Our planned investment for full capacity is $3.5 billion.

How does your solution enable the private sector to uniquely contribute?

The remaining open piece of our solution puzzle is the private sector investment. The combination of Africa, innovation and the lake’s perceived risk will exclude >99% of the investment community from considering this investment. The combination of great social and humanitarian impact, positive environmental impact and high double-digit investment returns provides a triple bottom line. We trust it can entice the remaining <1% of the investing community to consider investment. We are looking to engage them.

Nyhavn Area of Copenhagen - Site of 2008 & 2009 Conferences
Nyhavn Area of Copenhagen – Site of 2008 & 2009 Conferences

Our Expert Group wrote the rules-of-use of the Lake Kivu resource in a 30-page book that sets out the principles to apply. The first principle is public safety. It sets the priority in the face of the looming existential threat to millions. The second principle is environmental preservation. It needs to keep the lake as a viable ecosystem for the next 50 years of gas harvest and for the centuries that follow. The third principle is societal benefit. We need to ensure that existing usage of the lake continues, such as lake transport and the fish harvest. Producing clean energy must contribute to cheaper energy and increasing employment.

Only after these first three will come the benefit to developers and investors. But the project benefits will be economically sound, more rewarding than most global investors’ yields from resource industries. Perhaps it may be too niche for big oil and gas players. But with a lifetime revenue potential of $100 billion, and high free cash flows, there is enough to cater for investor returns and social obligations.

How does your solution deliberately create and sustain societal good?

The rules-of-use of Lake Kivu mandate societal good. We must achieve them through adopting the three principles. But societal good goes deeper, it must be more meaningful and explicit. Hydragas will adopt and sustainably engineer the best life-saving measures as our primary goal. We must deliver them for the safety of millions in the community.

We have have observed a worrying example of the outcomes of showing indifference to the regulations. The cost could one day be measured in millions of lives not just millions of dollars. Hydragas will therefore act in the best way we can, to commit and comply fully to the rules.

But to date there have been cases where the best has not been done. An earlier developer used political and legal means to avoid complying with mandatory requirements in the latest Management Prescriptions. They began designing their facility based on an unofficially released early draft of the regulations. For instance, the early 2008 draft issue was not explicit on extraction method. The draft was less stringent on key requirements and their design constraints. The key one in the 2009 update was the banning of use of the legacy extraction method.

Designing Solutions to Regulate for Safety

Therefore, during detailed design they were obliged to make changes to achieve compliance with this 2009 version. Instead they threatened to sue for costs and damages to avoid complying. They didn’t change anything despite having the time in a slow moving project.

Since then some concerning trends were shown in monitoring results. By then they filed suit against government for a “change in law”. In the same time frame, the environmental authority is weighing a shutdown order for them based on the monitoring results.

As Lake Kivu developers Hydragas fully subscribes to the principles and requirements in the Management Prescriptions. We were co-authors of the document. Our innovation and design are key enablers for compliance to our mandate as developers. We need the support of our investors to commit to societal good, including our role in preventing climate change. While Africa’s legacy of oil & resources investment hardly sets us a good example, we are setting out to make the environment safer for us and for the societal good.


Virunga Mountains Wildlife Sanctuary for Gorillas and Elephants, beneficiaries that help us tell it's a great Cleantech project Climate Funding

Saving the Rhino: Relocating back to Rwanda

A black rhino temporarily held in a stockade during the relocation
A Black Rhino Held in a Stockade During its Relocation

Rhinos Return to their Original Habitat

Saving the Rhino campaigns have resulted in some of the black rhino being re-stocked back in Rwanda. They were virtually wiped out in 1994. Fast forward to June 2019 and another episode of saving the rhinos is re-establishing the species in a hame territory. They are now relocating with this effort, back to the Akagera Park that once had 50 rhino.

Rwanda has been leading the 25 year effort to save the mountain gorilla population. The Virunga National Park’s gorilla numbers returned from the brink. I visited the Virunga Gorillas National Park in 2003 with my project team. I was impressed to see how well protected they were. The Sabyinho gorilla family had armed guards tracking them. So now the Rhino population must have a good chance of repopulating their original habitat.

The five rhinos from European zoos and safari parks will bring to 20 the number of eastern black rhinos in Akagera. These are in addition to a number of the rhinos from South Africa in 2017. 

Animals raised in captivity will live on protected land

Pete Morkel is the veterinarian advising on the animal relocation. He is a cousin who was born in the same town as me in Zimbabwe, though I never met him. Indeed he was part of the 2017 relocation from South Africa. This plan has five rhinos flying from the Czech Republic’s Dvur Kralove zoo. Similarly Pete has many years of work experience with saving the rhino in South Africa.

Historically, South Africa has the largest, most threatened rhino population in the world. So there in South Africa, poachers kill up to 400 rhino per year. Most poachers are contracted by East Asian crime syndicates to provide just the horn of the rhino, valued higher than gold per kilogram. There, poachers slaughter herds of rhinos on contract.

They cut off their horns to sell to dealers in the underground markets in Asia. The composition of the horn is virtualy identical to human hair. It’s just keratin.

Climate Funding

Management Prescriptions: the “how-to” of Lake Kivu

Imagine now, for a moment, that you go to a technical conference. First of its kind. Almost 150 people are there. Outside the windows we can see Lake Kivu. It’s all calm, pristine. Its blue waters lapped on the sandy beach. But everyone’s aware of strange, unexplained things in the deep. The stories were apocryphal, swimmers disappear, boats sink. So with lots of scientists invited, government staffers too, business people, we could learn. Some 20 countries are represented, maybe 25. Two nations were there, neighbours. But they had not been on speaking terms for years due to wars and even genocide. Quite enough tension and uncertainty at the start. This is where the “Management Prescriptions” started.

The professors spoke, a mix of authority and leading questions. There were limnologists, volcanologists, environmentalists, hydrologists. Scientists came with questions and their own answers, each setting their stalls as a subject authority. Each seemed sure of their standing; the pre-eminence of their ideas and interpretation. Government teams introduced themselves and let us know they were there to listen. Diplomats and multi-lateral agencies were there to listen too; the subject was complex and no-one seemed sure who actually had the answers.

What had to be agreed in the document?

All of us knew there was much to figure out in reaching consensus and common purpose. We’d heard about dangers, volcanoes and gas eruptions. Going in I only knew few of the attendees, all Ministry of Energy staffers.

This February 2007 conference was between the two countries bordering Lake Kivu, the DRC and Rwanda. The workshop in Gisenyi was held on lake Kivu’s shores. Indeed, the location was a constant reminder to discuss its safe development. The government of Rwanda had opened a cal five years earlier for developers to start producing gas for power. But studies undertaken showed early evidence that competing ideas on how to do that were uncoordinated. At worst they could be conflicting each other’s operations.

As day one rolled into day two, questions started to outnumber answers. And the answers did not all agree. The 1975 data was dated, but some more recent data from 2004 surveys was being interpreted. However some ideas clashed, understandings were at odds. But if anyone had hoped that we’d all come away with all the answers, they were wrong. We now knew more about what we didn’t know than we’d thought beforehand.

Why did we need them?

During that workshop, the two countries signed an MoU on next steps to be taken to establish the bilateral institutional framework. The framework was to be for the monitoring of Lake Kivu, for the safety of the population and for the environment. The starting point of reference was the 1986 “Socigaz” document that had been bilaterally agreed to govern the use of Lake Kivu for gas extraction.

But circumstances and design ideas had changed since then. The program was primarily to discuss the issues at play in organising more coordinated development of the lake and how to confirm or modify the older Socigaz regulations. The organisers also wished to table new data, new issues and further define the rules of use of the lake. Indeed, the core theme was again to promote lake safety.

But for coordination, the conference had to agree on how establishing common purpose and regulate it. As the conference entered its last session, time had run out to complete this objective. The convener co-opted a group of five experts to extend the discussion “for a few hours or days” and then report back to the organisers. This ad-hoc team of experts reviewed and considered acceptance the current version of rules. Their report-back would confirm their findings.

The series of meetings on Lake Kivu

This Expert Working Group of scientists and technicians reviewed the Socigaz document. But the group rejected its validity as a basis for further development of Lake Kivu. The consensus was that the document was insufficient and too simplistic for the purpose. This group then resolved to work on the new version of the rules and regulations for safe gas extraction from Lake Kivu.

In fact, the exercise extended by over six months. By then it was apparent that agreement was becoming more difficult. Many more issues and concerns arose from deeper analysis. Two schools of thought arose. The team started to question the technical premise on how degassing the lake would be done. At the core of the investigation, the team questioned whether the “legacy” method destroyed the natural safety structure, leaving it unsafe for the long term.

Finalising the MP document

EAWAG organised a follow-up conference in Kastanienbaum, Switzerland in October 2007. In it, the parties made significant progress in understanding impacts of extraction methods. They drafted an early version of the discussion. Later in May 2008, COWI facilitated a further conference of the Experts. John Boyle led the team’s first draft the Management Prescriptions for Lake Kivu Development. Dr Finn Hirslund of COWI hosted the event in Copenhagen, Denmark with World Bank sponsorship. The parties agreed to repeat the exercise a year later in Copenhagen to finalise the document.

The outcome of three years of work later was this key document. Then in June 2009 the experts and conveners of the conference issued as the Management Prescriptions for Lake Kivu Development.

Introduction to Management Prescriptions

1.1 Safe gas extraction in Lake Kivu

The governments of Rwanda and the DRC wished to engage leading experts to explore beneficial ways of exploiting the methane resource in Lake Kivu. It needed to be in a safe, environmentally sound, yet economically profitable way. Reduction of the methane and carbon dioxide content of the waters of lake Kivu was necessary to reduce the risk of sudden eruption of these gases. Minister Albert Butare was Minister of State for Energy in Rwanda. In his role he reached out to all stakeholders, including the Ministry of Hydrocarbons in the DRC.

1.2 Rationale for the conferences

Since the signing of the bilateral MoU, the Expert Working Group has elaborated a Management Prescriptions document. This document delineates basic principles for determining the size, number, location and design of extraction operations. Indeed, it establishes mandatory requirements and guidelines for any gas extraction plant’s design and operation.

Also, the NCEA has provided further advice through its “Advice on Harvesting the Methane Resource and Monitoring the Stratification of Lake Kivu” of 27 August 2007. NCEA also provided its secretariat memo of February 2008. This was on a strategy and action plan for monitoring in Lake Kivu Monitoring, which includes required institutional steps. Meanwhile, the Rwandan government started the extraction of methane through its KP1 pilot plant.

Given that gas extraction operations involved high risk, they need to be done according to agreed-upon safety standards. But without having a bilateral legal and institutional context in which to operate. Thus the Government of Rwanda decided to call for a second conference. Indeed the topic was on safe gas extraction from Lake Kivu. Therefore the conference proceeded in order to come to such arrangements.

1.3 Conference objectives & outcomes

Besides an exchange of most recent collective knowledge and insights, the conference’s objectives were two-fold:

(i) To agree on the need to establish a bilateral authority with regulatory mandate over Lake Kivu. The conference reached agreement on a road map towards it’s establishment and operational mandate;

(ii) To validate and adopt the Management Prescriptions document that the Expert Working Group prepared over the past two years.

Mr. John Boyle (World Bank) coordinated the ad-hoc Expert Working Group from March 2007 to May 2008. The expert working group members were: Dr Finn Hirslund, Mr Philip Morkel and Dr. Klaus Tietze. Then Dr. Martin Schmid and Prof. Alfred Wüest later joined the group.

John Boyle had left the Group before the May 2009 meeting of the experts and interested parties. Philip Morkel assumed the role as scribe for the final document for issue.

Attendees at the 2009 Copenhagen conference on Lake Kivu's Management Prescriptions
Attendees at the 2009 Copenhagen conference on Lake Kivu’s Management Prescriptions

Notes on the Workshop Report May 2009:

Rwanda’s ESIA Profile:

The Management Prescriptions Document:

Read more “Management Prescriptions: the “how-to” of Lake Kivu”
Perito Moreno Glacier c. Steve Humphreys, Getty Climate Funding

Breakdown of Arctic Methane Hydrates

Like ‘champagne bottles being opened’

Scientists document an ancient methane explosion

Ice Floe in Arctic Sea

Ice Floe in the Arctic Sea near Svalbard: In this photo provided by Dirk Notz, taken April 24, 2009, ice floats in the Arctic near Svalbard, Norway. A new study has found evidence of an ancient methane “explosion” from Arctic Methane Hydrates in the Barents Sea near Svalbard. (Dirk Notz via Associated Press)

This article has some important lessons for changes coming in the Arctic during the global warming. What if we get sudden explosive outbursts of methane from the ocean floor? A ship or boat could sink if travelling above. It would disappear without a trace in seconds. Arctic methane hydrates are shallower than most hydrates. They kept in place by temperature, rather than just pressure. 

Arctic methane hydrates are widespread in the Arctic Sea north of Canada and Russia. These coastal waters are being spoken of as convenient shipping lanes in the decades ahead. 

June 1, 2017

Nearly 12,000 years ago, a sudden burst of methane surged from the bottom of the Arctic Ocean leaving an array of gigantic craters in its wake. And a slow trickle of gas continues to leak from the seafloor to this day.

The findings, described in a paper published Thursday in the journal Science. They are the latest of recent discoveries pointing to Arctic methane hydrates explosions in the ancient past. And the findings have inspired debate among scientists about whether such an event could happen again and how it could affect the climate.

“The authors show exciting new evidence that this methane can be trapped in the sediment and released in large bursts, with a much greater potential of reaching the atmosphere,” said Stephen Grasby. He is a research scientist with Natural Resources Canada, who was not involved with the new research, in an emailed comment.

This matters because methane is a potent greenhouse gas — its warming effect on the atmosphere is up to 30 times as strong as that of carbon dioxide. This is when taken over a period of 100 years or so. So the discovery of any new methane sources or leaks on the planet is a point of interest with climate scientists.

Methane Seeps from Arctic Methane Hydrates

But the climate implications of underwater methane leaks are murkier. First, these leaks or “seeps” are by no means rare. There are hundreds of known seeps throughout the ocean floor. They’re the result of a natural process, in which methane forms as organic matter decomposes at the bottom of the sea. It then gradually bubbles back up from the sediment into the water column.

Scientists generally believe that the methane leaking from these seeps never makes it to the surface of the ocean. Instead it dissolves in the water on its way up. But some suggest that an explosion, of the type described in Thursday’s paper, could produce enough force. This would send some gas straight up to the surface and into the atmosphere. In the atmosphere it has potentially climate-warming consequences.

The new paper describes one such event that occurred about 12,000 years ago. It was in what is now the Barents Sea, a region of the Arctic Ocean stretching between Norway and Russia. There, at the bottom of the ocean floor, stands a collection of more than 100 craters. Some are as much as 3,000 feet wide and nearly 100 feet deep. The researchers believe they were formed by sudden rushes of methane from the seafloor.

Methane, although most commonly observed in gas form, can sometimes become trapped at the bottom of the ocean in very deep or cold regions. It freezes into a solid substance known as a methane hydrate. It can remain trapped this way indefinitely until something destabilizes it.

Glacial Retreat

The area where the craters are located was once covered by extensive glaciers. These placed enormous pressure on the land beneath them, helping to form the methane hydrates and keep them stable. But about 15,000 years ago, the ice sheet began to retreat. It was gradually releasing some of that pressure. As this happened, the space in the ground where conditions were right for the hydrates to remain stable grew thinner and thinner.

“The thinning and the retreating of the ice sheet led to increased concentration of gas hydrates in increasingly shallow layers below the ice sheet.” Karin Andreassen is the new paper’s lead author and a professor of marine geology and geophysics at the Center for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Environment and Climate at the Arctic University of Norway.

Ancient Global Warming

At the same time, temperatures in the region were increasing. And as the ice continued to retreat the enormous pressure was relieved. Earth’s crust began to bounce back into shape. These factors further contributed to the compression of the hydrates in the Arctic sediment. They also began to cause mounds to rise up at the bottom of the newly formed sea. Finally, the pressure became too much, the gas burst forth. So the mounds collapsed into the craters we observe today.

“I think it was probably like a lot of champagne bottles being opened at different times,” Andreassen said.

Although there’s no evidence that other sudden bursts have occurred in the region since, there appears to still be a substantial reservoir of gas there. To this day, methane and other hydrocarbons continue to slowly vent from the seafloor. And they probably have been since the explosion occurred, Andreassen said.

She added that there’s evidence of other intact hydrates still in the region — mounds that have yet to burst — and what will happen to them in the future remains unclear.

Arctic Methane Hydrate Explosions

As for the methane explosion, it’s not the only such event to have occurred in ancient Arctic history. Grasby, the Natural Resources Canada scientist, recently published research describing a cluster of rocky mounds in the Canadian Arctic. Researchers believed they were also caused by an ancient methane explosion, although much further in the past. Grasby’s mounds were likely formed about 100 million years ago This was probably after a sudden warming period in Earth’s history destabilized the hydrates.

He raised the question in his paper of whether modern-day Arctic warming could be priming the region for another methane explosion in the future. It also raised the question whether that gas could make it to the atmosphere. The concern is that this scenario could lead to a dramatic amplification of global warming. This could even potentially trigger a climate feedback loop, in which more warming causes more methane to be released.

But some scientists have contested this idea. When Grasby’s paper was released in April, geophysicist Carolyn Ruppel of the U.S. Geological Survey told The Washington Post that the findings did not substantially change our understanding of what happens to methane when it vents from the ocean floor. She has generally taken a skeptical position on the theory that unstable methane hydrates could lead to runaway climate effects.

Too Soon for Conclusions

Andreassen, too, cautioned that these theories have no concrete support for the time being. She noted that it would be a “dramatic conclusion” to assume that ancient methane explosions had a significant effect on the climate. This is without substantial extra work to back up the idea. But conditions in the Arctic are rapidly changing, thanks to the climate change. Still, because Arctic methane hydrates do still exist in the region — it’s a scenario deserving of continued research.

But we haven’t observed any similar explosions in the present day. That is not yet, anyway — Grasby also agrees that there’s considerable uncertainty remains about exactly what happens when such an event occurs.

“The novel study points out that we still have a poor understanding of the mechanisms of how methane hydrates melt and release gas. We need this to understand the potential of that methane to reach the atmosphere,” he said.

See the link:

Financial markets and trends graphic - Stock photo Climate Funding

Investment funding; Impact funding for low-carbon energy?

Lemming investment funding strategy

I thought we would see the end of suicidal “lemming” investment funding strategies after the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. Investors piled into sub-prime junk mortgage investments, because everyone else was doing it. It fulfilled the text-book risk management strategy of “reducing” risk. De-risk by spreading ownership of any creative investment vehicles contagious junk as widely as possible. But too much such junk, too widely spread, nearly took a slew of major banks down. It had the global financial system on the brink.

Impact on investment funding

The US dollar printing press: where do all the dollars go?
US Mint Printing $100 Bills

It perhaps should have, but this is not my area of expertise. Was the cure better than the disease? What I do know is that a $20m investment agreement funding my own project was canned two days before signature. This was Hydragas Energy. Indeed, the date was August 2, 2008. The US investor, a renowned environmentalist and huge fan of the project, suffered his own triple whammy of financial setbacks. His hits included the cancellation of major contracts with California State Government and two cancelled sales of mining and energy investments. He had to bail out of the opportunity.

For years afterwards, risk aversion ruled and investment funding tanked. So I placed the project on the back burner for a while. Because of that, I was busying myself advising governments on  regulation for safe use of the lake. This was an essential task for community safety for millions of people.

Where that money really goes

As a result, global crisis management included some critical interventions hugely expensive bail-outs. This process saw taxpayer (and other newly created) money injected to save the skins of most banks. That is, those other than Lehmann Brothers and Icelandic banks. The “too-big-to-fail” US financial institutions and many global entities were on a knife’s edge.

Trillions of dollars were printed for “global easing”. Where are these trillions now? This was surely a recipe for inflation. That is, unless yours is the ultimate reserve currency, thus able to avert postpone the problem onto other generations. Taxpayers will pay the interest on the debt and that’s pending. It works out at $50 billion per annum per 0.25% interest on $18 trillion. No wonder the US Executive branch has pushed for rate cuts.

Was it criminal?

Arguably it was criminal behaviour that led to the crisis. But at so many levels, that behaviour remained unpunished. No bankers were jailed. So bankers were soon back into business as usual. Their current exercise is to be creative with this mountain of new money printed. To the casual eye, the situation’s almost back to normal, really a “SNAFU” kind of normal. By then, banker’s fees were back to the respectable unconscionable levels. Fees were earned for moving money around, but where to?

Goldman Sachs admitted, as an example among the fraternity of bankers, that they are spending tens of billions of dollars on legal fees and provisions to reduce their risk profile and provide for claims or contingencies. Somebody else is paying for that as an added banking fee.

Is this how you teach investment risk management?

Finance teaching at UIdaho
Finance teaching

I discussed this risk management problem with a colleague, Larisa, busy studying for her CFA. So I decided to read her text book’s financial risk chapter. I suggested that the risk management method was utterly flawed. This chapter needed a wholesale re-write. But so far it seems that the only editing was to add the investment destination qualifier, “except for sub-prime mortgages…”. One door closes, many remain open.

So why should I be concerned? Is it because there is more of the same going on, just under different labels?

How to fund real projects?

Actually no. My first concern is at the other end of the investing funding spectrum. It lies with the ongoing difficulty of funding real, productive, wealth-generating projects. The ones that give real returns and real benefits. These same projects benefit needy communities and climate change. Commodity prices hinder investment, with some exceptions. Incredibly, it’s the good investments that suffer from a credibility problem with bankers. How is this category ignored in favor of a widely abused spread of “junk” risk?

In old-style Economics 101, it was primary and secondary industry that was the keystone investment. They provided the base on which all economic activity was built. The service industries, such as banking, earned their fees by facilitating the transactions. These kept the wheels of mining and industry turning. Bankers became incredibly adept at generating new fees for new services. Along the way they created a service industry of advisers to interpret complexity. The process became the means and the end. Who needs a project when the mere movement of the funds generates as much?

What can we learn from Catch 22?

This new school of finance and economics, post GFC, has terminally displaced the older economic construct. This transition was foreseen by Joseph Heller’s character in his post-war novel, Catch 22. Milo Minderbinder is the unconstrained wheeler-dealer that thrives on wars.

Milo, in a most intriguing Catch 22 sub-plot, was the mess sergeant at an air force bomber base in Italy in WWII. He started by trading army rations for fresh food and eggs from local farmers. This was for the benefit of his clientele – the troops. His deal skills and transactions escalated hugely in size and scope. Enter the global entrepreneur and arbitrageur. He graduated to grand enterprise and insane plans. He figured that it was cheaper for American bombers to bomb American lines and German bombers to bomb their own lines and negotiated the deal!

World War II Bombers line up for Take off in Italy
Bombers Ready for Take-off in Italy, World War II

He offset the cost of bombers travelling the extra distance to bomb each other’s lines. He arranged the arbitrage, among many grand but unheard-of deals, becoming the ultimate and invisible war-time deal-maker and trader. Perhaps it’s Heller’s commentary on the Yalta conference between Roosevelt and Stalin, 10 million Russian lives for US armaments and gold.

Conscience was no barrier to such schemes, nor is it evident in today’s politics. Heller was ahead of his time, sixty years at least, but the practice is alive and thriving in 2019. Catch 22 applies in ways Heller may not have imagined in global finance, but with global politics such hegemony is alive and thriving more than ever.

COP 21 and all that climate change distraction

So where will one see evidence of the newly printed trillions funding something tangible and worthwhile like fixing climate change? COP21 in Paris in December 2015 saw many pledges of investment to save the environment. The over-arching aim was to trim back to at most 1.5 degrees on global warming. That might otherwise rise by 2-4 degrees. Tech billionaires are in the vanguard of those getting podium time in Paris and face time with politicians at Davos. I don’t doubt their wish to succeed and their ability to influence. They’re good.

World Map showing NASA Climate Change Temperature Anomalies in 2017
World Map showing NASA Climate Change Temperature Anomalies in 2017

But I do have doubts on whether the financial system will carry out their express wishes. A multiplicity of Milo Minderbinders out there learnt to be in the mix as the intermediaries. Will they earn their margins and redirect investment funding into pseudo-environmental investments, with virtual enviro-social benefits? Will they sink any form of respectability that these pledges were built on?

How to dress-up a project to get climate funding?

I wonder, for example, will someone in this mix ever look at our project?

In this case we need a paltry $30m initial investment into innovative climate-change technology. We can look deeper. A $3 B eventual, staged capital spend with its 40% real returns. What might one say of its $10bn NPV10 and its ability to avert 2 gigatons of carbon emissions? Because it also stops a pending, one-day methane eruption, by later this century. But then, what might we think of the project preventing the same-day deaths of 2-4 million people in the zone?

How do we assess a value of the lives saved? These are the millions that could suffocate under the toxic gas cloud released if we don’t do the project? Oh yes, it also cuts the cost of imported energy to several countries by 50% into the bargain. And gosh, it reduces greenhouse gas emissions from the imported oil that still provides that energy. It seems so good, almost too good. It must have a hidden risk. No. Can’t touch it. For deal-makers there are easier ways to make a buck and they don’t have to make sense.

Decision-makers and gate-keepers

Who do you need to get through for an investment decision?
Gate-keepers and decision-makers

As one company corporate lawyer said this to me, when we discussed this project as a hedge investment several years ago. “There is no chance that we’ll consider this, there’s a genocide going on there!” My protest was that Rwanda was 20 years past this event, and now peaceful. It didn’t move him. I showed him a Gallup poll. It listed it as amongst the three safest countries on the planet. But he was unbending. “No I’ve never been there, but this is my information. It’s my decision.” Perhaps I should tell him that WWII is also over. Japan’s actually quite safe too from American nukes. Why bother, there are none so deaf…

But of course there’s hope. What if Elon Musk had to go to the same gate-keeping lawyer? Would he succeed in his plan to put supply rockets into space? What of his plan to re-use the vehicle? Would that have got past that gatekeeper? No, but he didn’t have to either.

Just thinking. So what would Milo Minderbinder do? He’d figure out a way.