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Lake Kivu Methane. Can Ethanol double its Energy Yield?

Can we produce ethanol from Lake Kivu in addition to methane? If so, how? Methane is the primary energy form in the lake, which contains five times as much unusable CO2 in the reservoir. Some research news offers a challenge and an opportunity to do so much more.

A research team led by scientists from Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and Northern Illinois University has discovered a new electrocatalyst that can consistently convert carbon dioxide and water into ethanol with very high energy efficiency and low cost.

Argonne’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development (U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science).

Hydragas Energy worked for a decade to prove the leading gas extraction method from Lake Kivu. It gets tens of billions worth of methane out cheaply and effectively. But what if the waste product is worth even more?

Ethanol Production Potential

Can we now achieve this with another innovation? The lake is already a hugely important case for carbon reduction through producing renewable natural gas (RNG). But we do return gigatons of carbon dioxide to the lake – a huge carbon sink. It is essentially a low-value waste product that continues to accumulate. The carbon dioxide is a by-product of the natural digestion process producing methane. It is removed during methane extraction to upgrade the product gas. We currently return it to the lake.

Panoramic photo of Mt Nyiragongo from Lake Kivu during wet season showing steam plume
Panoramic of Mt Nyiragongo from Lake Kivu in wet season

What if we could take the methane out but also convert the CO2 to ethanol? Could this be a cheap supplement to regional gasoline supply, in the form of a carbon-negative fuel? If so, we can do this by using a newly developed catalyst from the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School. In addition, all one needs is CO2, water and electrical power – all abundant from the lake. So what is the potential?

That is where the numbers would add up to a massive economic injection for the region. That is a big number where the Kivu methane potential is already $40 billion over 50 years. How would the economics look for ethanol? Can we produce even more value?

Cheaper fuel – Ethanol from Lake Kivu

Gasoline has a vast, still growing market internationally. Many markets promote the use of up to 15% ethanol blended in the gasoline. Subsidy is usually needed to make production economic as ethanol is mostly derived from corn (maize) or sugar cane. These substrates are expensive to produce – hence their subsidy needs. But where the CO2 substrate is available for this alternative production process at virtually at no cost, the fuel produced is much cheaper. One would expect that it reduces the cost of fuel and can also be sold competitively within the region for fuel blending.

The contribution to a circular regional economy for East Africa is a real contribution to reducing reliance on imports. It enhances the use of the lake for CCUS, or carbon capture, usage and storage. It is already a vast opportunity, but further enhanced. 

“The process resulting from our catalyst would contribute to the circular carbon economy, which entails the reuse of carbon dioxide.” — Di-Jia Liu, senior chemist in Argonne’s Chemical Sciences and Engineering division and a UChicago CASE scientist

Advancing a Clean Economy in Africa

We are looking to build onto an established energy case for a cleaner regional economy. Methane from Lake Kivu can eliminate diesel fuel imports for power generation, while replacing charcoal as a domestic fuel. With power production potential of 600 MW, the produced power can supply power at half the region’s marginal cost of power. But the use of gasoline as the primary transport fuel in Rwanda, DRC and other regional users was a complex opportunity. Ethanol production is an important alternative to supplement imports at a lower cost.

It uses some of a vast store of accumulated CO2 gas in Lake Kivu. We currently need to wash this CO2 out of raw gas produced, to make 80% pure renewable natural gas (RNG) as pipeline natural gas.

But now instead of returning the washed out CO2 to the lake, we can process the wash water to make ethanol. If testing shows that the process is successful and economic, we can hugely enhance ethanol from Lake Kivu as part of a clean energy production phenomenon. Rwanda can, with the Kivu gas project, become 100% supplied with clean non-transport energy. With this added gasoline substitution it can commence the displacement of a significant percentage of transport fuel too.

Cooking on RNG to reduce deforestation gas-to-power

Sustainable Cooking Energy? – Use renewable natural gas.

Sustainable Cooking Energy - from cooking on gas?
Is cooking on gas the sustainable cooking energy option?

What does it take to help a country make a transition to sustainable cooking energy? Why would the people change their tradition? What then is the most Sustainable Cooking Energy for the East African region? And can you imagine a new idea that puts over 10,000 women entrepreneurs to work to deliver it? Think of these ideas that are working well in Africa.

Biogas from Lake Kivu can provide an alternative energy delivery too. It is a renewable natural gas (RNG). Moving it by pipeline can replace firewood and charcoal, at an even cheaper price. It can thus become the region’s primary domestic and industrial fuel. But this switch to supplying pipeline gas needs infrastructure that does not yet exist. We have a plan for that.

The daily battle for cooking fuel

Charcoal suppliers in Rwanda are not a Sustainable Cooking Energy
Charcoal suppliers in Rwanda – Not a Sustainable Cooking Energy

Firewood or charcoal supplied 90% of non-transport energy usage in 2006. With the present population, usage rates are non-sustainable.By 2018 it was down fractionally to 83%. Deforestation rates are unsustainable. There is a growing need for a more sustainable cooking energy supply at low cost, with less climate impact.

The wood-fuel energy mix changed little despite efforts to increase imports of LPG. The tropical forest has all but disappeared. The exceptions are the Virunga and Nyungwe forest reserves. Even these national parks weren’t immune from the need. Charcoal-burners encroached into parks, cutting and burning trees to supply demand in the cities. In the DRC, militias in rebel enclaves “taxed” the transport of charcoal en route to Goma by charging carriers of charcoal extortionate fees at roadblocks. Prices escalated well above inflation.

The high cost of charcoal

For Rwandans, charcoal costs can absorb 25% or more of a household’s net income. In fact, charcoal cost Rwf 2000 per bag ($3) in 2004. But in 2019, the price has escalated above Rwf 10,000 per bag ($11). A family would typically use more than one bag per month. The 250% increase from 2006 was far above inflation. This will still take 20% of monthly income, with no affordable substitute.

From a financial perspective, charcoal is not a sustainable cooking energy either. In fact it has not improved since the country started to import over 10 million kg of LPG per year in an effort to stem deforestation. But, with LPG being much more expensive than charcoal, its high cost means that usage is low and household energy costs remain too high.

The 2003 Draft Rwandan Gas Law stipulated that Lake Kivu gas is to be used solely for power generation. Fortunately the updated 2008 Draft Gas Law removed the power-only clause, opening up the potential for pipeline gas. In this case renewable natural gas (RNG) can and should supply the pipeline gas alternative to LPG, fuel-wood and charcoal for cooking.

Pipeline RNG must become this viable alternative to biomass in the region’s supply mix. But using a first-world distribution model won’t do it as the capital cost and usage charges would be way too high. The “Vilankulo” option is better. (Indeed, the World Bank named the initiative after Vilankulo, a town in Mozambique.) This low-cost distribution model was first set up there in 1992.

Expensive power: no use for cooking

Electrical power in the region was, since the 1990’s, and still remains too pricey for most users. One cannot imagine that a power price, which is double that in most countries of Europe, would be affordable to East Africans. They have incomes just a small fraction of the per capita GDP in Europe. Rwandan GDP per capita was less than 20% of say South Africa’s or Zambia’s in 2006. Power pricing was a major socio-economic problem for residents and also for commerce and industry.

Electric power was only affordable to a few. Fixed rates in Rwanda ran from USc 22-26/kWh. But just 6% of the population had a power connection in 2006. Cooking with electrical power was a preserve of very few people.

Cleaner domestic energy – future solutions

Hydragas studied and modelled energy supply needs of Rwanda and DRC as part of its gas feasibility studies. We prepared feasibility assessments on RNG energy competitiveness and market size, including at least half a million homes. 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. This is borne out by the very low (56 kWh per month) power consumption the average home in Rwanda.

The connected customers seem to preferably use it for essential lighting and electronics. Charcoal is preferred for cooking. But the poorer rural users consume only firewood and no electrical power. Indeed gas, once it is available and distributed to homes, can supply the bulk of energy needs in almost all lower income homes. Combined gas and power can be supplied more cheaply and effectively than its alternatives.

Making the best out of competing energy sources

But on the supply side, utilities are faced with the cost of connecting two energy sources. Some coordination can help, as was studied in South Africa. A study for the national power utility (Eskom) and Sasol (gas) looked into a combined feed of low amperage power with a small pipeline gas feed to homes. But the two energy utilities could not forge the necessary cooperation. In the end, like Rwanda, power was not affordable. So in South Africa, dirty coal made up the lower cost alternative. The coal was sold by the “hubcap” at rates ten times higher than bulk supply prices. Because of the winter extremes of freezing temperatures and low wind, coal smoke blanketed many cities at night. Respiratory disease rates in South Africa’s poorer townships rocketed up to endemic levels.

Several sources have contributed to the growing power supply mix for Rwanda. Unfortunately diesel power dominates the mix. But less alternate sources have been available for cooking fuels. Very few are affordable, as illustrated with low sales of LPG, and biomass continues to dominate.

Balancing thermal energy and electrical power use

But Kivu gas can and should supply thermal energy into this mix. It is a cheap, convenient thermal energy source for households and industry. A key environmental impact, from gas use, is its ability to halt or reverse deforestation. This is done by replacing charcoal as a dominant fuel source.

A major capital investment need is a new national gas network to connect population centres. This network will provide the backbone for gas transmission and distribution around the country. The geography of Rwanda is well-suited for running a cost-effective HDPE gas supply network. It is a small country with a dense population. Despite being mountainous, medium-pressure, plastic (HDPE) gas pipelines are simple and effective to install. So, quite simply, it uses less piping material to connect more people at lower cost.

Compare gas networks developed for Mozambique

A medium-pressure network is an expanded, country-scale form of the Vilankulo concept. Mozambique’s first gas supply started in 1992 with a 110 km pipeline connecting the gas fields to two towns. It was expanded to include three offshore islands. We know it can work better in Rwanda because it is small and the most densely populated country in Africa. Thus, it is density of housing, even in rural areas, that reduces the capital cost per user. We advocate the Vilankulo concept, compatible with newer US and EU-based design standard for pipelines.

How to get gas into houses at low cost?

The Vilankulo design for household connections is simple. We can deploy it with limited training, as in Mozambique. It also supports an “Africa-appropriate” commercial model. This well-studied alternative can make distribution far more cost-effective. It is at the core of what made the gas program effective in Mozambique.

The pilot testing team after a day on the lake Dec 2003
Lake Kivu team: Philip Morkel, Fabrizio Stefani, Fred Wilson and Rory Harbinson

Our team of Rory Harbinson and Fred Wilson led the gas network installation program in Mozambique. They ran it from 1992 to 2014. Their practical solutions led a low cost program for household gas. An element of the simplified approach was eliminating 98% of households gas meters as they made up 50% of the material costs. It took years of gas sales to pay for a meter.

How to simplify a household gas installation?

Installing HDPE plastic gas pipelines for domestic supply
Commercial gas crews doing street gas main installation

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

Tapping into a gas street main to supply a large house of town block
Tying in a gas metered block of houses to a street gas main

In 1992, the cost of connecting a house was $200. It included a two-plate burner. All of them are still operating 25 years later. By comparison, legacy systems in Europe or even South Africa cost $4,000 – $10,000, 20-50 times more expensive. We believe that the cheaper connection for Rwanda can cost little more than $400 in 2020 for all-in costs from the city gate to the household cooker. This fee includes the starter set-up with a two-plate gas cooker. Indeed, users could also install lighting, water heating, refrigeration, barbecues and full size stoves over time, as needed. Piping needs to be upgraded for commercial users and some larger houses.

A workable 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. One of the donors funding the scheme, from Scandinavia, had a Norwegian expert review our town supply study as they could not believe the low capital cost.

To our amusement, the queries the expert 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? His list would have more than quadrupled the project cost and would have made gas unaffordable. In Vilankulo, a man on a bicycle could carry most needs for a house and he could install in an hour. He would ask for the help of the householder to dig an access trench for the pipe. Needless to say, this remains the way to do it.

Simple lessons from Nigeria on commercial strategy

This was where European and North American standard household installations were too expensive. Our gas project team was looking at how to cut out costs in Mozambique. Here, their revenues would take five years or more to pay off home 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 specified in Europe? In Africa, the cost of that first-world type of household gas installation will exceed the cost of the house itself.

Our commercial gas pricing model originated in Nigeria, where it is used for 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 each year. A light bulb was one point, a stove 15 points, a fan five points etc. Each tenant’s total was divided into the apartment building’s total points 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 by a user both hurts and is visible to one’s neighbours.

Empowering Women : 10 000+ part-time jobs created

But beyond installation, the processes of commercial operations must simplify. This enables further cost reductions but can increase employment. Our view is of an “Africa-ready” commercial model, that worked well in Nigerian cities. As we observed with Nigerian landlords, there is a simple customer-facing role within a comparable gas model. This role can create a part-time income for 10,000 – 15,000 home-based entrepreneurial women in Rwanda. They would service the eventual 600,000 homes connecting to gas. Their job is to become the utility operator for the block that they live in. The block may have say 50 houses. They train simply to become “block” franchisees in their neighborhoods. They arrange to connect users, collect tariffs, keep a percentage and pay the town or district franchisee.

We configured a three-tier system with: At the top, a national gas transmission network and management team; next, a second-tier of town or district operators who franchise areas with up to thousands of users; and finally the women operating the “block franchises” would be the third-tier.

Franchising gas distribution

These tiers all play their role. These women become the local distributor for say up to 50 households in their “block” or street. Their role is to assess points regularly, monitor excess usage and levy a monthly charge to users on the same metered block basis. They arrange for connections of new users and collect monthly charges not done as mobile phone transactions.

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

Delivering sustainable cooking energy future

Our first post on this topic starts with ideals and the grand plan for a clean energy future in Rwanda and Eastern DRC. The ideas make a difference at country-scale. The concepts on how this is set up are also explained. So I have dived here into the details to explain some of the simpler concepts to roll out RNG as a clean energy too. These are real ideas, and they have gone live in Nigeria and for gas in Mozambique with great success.

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.

10,000 women’s empowerment as gas entrepreneurs

It is our view that the importance of mobilising tens of thousands of small entrepreneurs. Specifically for women, working from their own homes is an important breakthrough. Indeed, it is obvious that legacy utility systems are overrated. Also, the commerce is simplified by using cellphone apps to manage billing and management. East Africa already leads the world in widespread adoption of mobile systems for banking and payments.

These approaches go some way to making energy more affordable, cleaner and more sustainable. These are the building blocks for a sustainable cooking energy solution. In fact, these solutions grew from the ground up.