Tapping into the power of nature

Driving back along the road to Beni in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo one evening this spring, I was struck by the darkness. There were no lights until we got to the city. The reason is simple: there is no power in most of rural Africa. Even in the city of Beni, hotels only run generators for four or five hours at night because fuel is so expensive and organizations need their own generators in order to work in their offices during the day.

For people used to flipping a switch for light, driving along a brightly-lit street, or using their computers all day if they want, the realities of rural power supply are hard to imagine. Without power, you can work only in the daytime. Children can’t study at night. Women can’t work in their homes at night. Men can’t work outdoors in darkness. This is the reason why solar power has been so welcomed everywhere it has been introduced – because it changes peoples lives, even when they are far away from power grids and generators.

I was puzzled that, in southern Sudan and eastern DRC, solar power doesn’t seem to be widely used – at least in the places I was visiting.  In towns, I could hear the generators running, and thought about how much the fuel cost, whereas the sun’s energy is free once the systems to capture it are in place. I think it is only a matter of showing people how it works. In eastern DRC, some tiny communities are trying to design and build their own small hydro projects by themselves. India’s Barefoot College is training older African women to build, install and maintain solar power in their villages, creating jobs as well as light.

A different kind of natural resource is being harnessed in Rwanda, where less than 10 per cent of the country’s 9.7 million people are connected to the electricity grid. Rwanda has generation capacity of about 69 megawatts in total. Now a multi-million-dollar project is underway that, when completed, will by itself generate 100 megawatts of gas-fired electricity. This is likely to dramatically reduce the costs of electricity and even make it possible for Rwanda to export electricity.

Lake Kivu, which straddles the border between Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo, is full of enough methane to provide Rwanda with power for most of the century. The methane was discovered in 1936 after people wondered why the lake had so few fish. Since 1963, a pilot plant has proven that methane can be extracted to provide power – in this case, at a local brewery. Last week, a 750-ton floating barge was launched and ground was broken for an accompanying onshore power plant. Once the extraction plant is built on the barge, methane gas from the depths of Lake Kivu will be piped to a power plant on the shore that will produce 25 megawatts. In the second phase of the project, another 75 megawatts will be added.

This unique project is an astounding example of how a problem can become an opportunity. Scientists have warned that, like the two other ‘exploding’ lakes in Africa, Lake Kivu poses risks to nearby communities if the methane gas isn’t released. But rather than just venting the methane, Project KivuWatt will extract and process the gas for power generation. Additionally, because it will help make more electricity available at a much lower cost, the project is likely to reduce the use of wood and charcoal and thus protect Rwanda’s forests as well as reducing Rwanda’s dependence on outside fuel.

Electricity, however, will go only where there are power lines, and in many rural areas of Africa, building those lines may take years. In the meantime, it would be great to see solar power being tapped much more widely in rural communities. Even at the individual level, solar lamps offer light for night time that allows students to study and men and women to work, while solar cooking means women don’t have to wander in search of wood. All of this increases security as well as helping to meet the Millennium Development Goals. It would be great to see the same creativity and initiative that has been put into the methane gas project also being applied to bringing solar power to rural villages in southern Sudan and eastern DRC.

For more about Project KivuWatt and Lake Kivu, see: