Unexpected technical hitches are standing between the nation and 25 megawatts of energy production expected to be generated from the first phase of the KivuWatt Methane Project in the Western Province district of Karongi, The New Times has learned.
The wait has been long. The first deadline was sometime in 2012. The most recent was July, but it was missed. Now a new one has been set for October.
ContourGlobal, an American energy investment firm, has a 25-year concession to produce 100 megawatts from the methane-rich waters of Lake Kivu.
Works on the first phase started in late 2008 but seven years later, the plant is yet to produce any electricity.
This newspaper’s request for access to the project was granted last Friday as it sought to substantiate reports that a critical part of the project’s machinery had been severely damaged during installation, hence the missed July deadline.
From a distance, the KivuWatt project is like a floating island in the middle of Lake Kivu; its machinery, which is a complicated assemblage of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of heavy pipes and metal, are installed on a wide barge.
The barge is anchored in one place by long strong ropes that are fastened in concrete slabs built at the bottom of the lake; according to the engineers, this is a permanent fixture.
Assessing the project progress from the outside, one could understand the frustrations of the government, which has played the role of patient customer waiting for a long placed order; a government that’s also under pressure from investors to address the daunting energy problem.
But once inside the project site, one gets to appreciate the reasons for the several missed deadlines in the past.
Jarmo Gummerus, ContourGlobal’s country director, says KivuWatt is a ‘lake breaking’ project,’ one that was always going to be a learning process.
Lake Kivu is the world’s only water body with methane gas and KivuWatt is the first project of its kind where methane gas will be extracted for electricity purposes. It’s one of ContourGlobal’s special Greenfield investments around the world.
“It’s lake-breaking because there are no templates for whatever we are doing here, there’s no luxury to copy and paste; everything here is being done for the first time, it’s an experiment where we have been learning and unlearning,” said Gummerus.
Gummerus, an engineer with several decades of experience, is as old in Rwanda as the project he’s managing.
At least two sub-contractors have been hired and fired, including the Kenya-based Civicon, about 3.5 million man-hours have been sunk into the project running on a multi-million dollar budget bankrolled by ContourGlobal investors.
Three million man-hours over a seven year period and the project hasn’t registered any fatal accidents, only five minor incidents were recorded under the watch of the two sub-contractors.
“Safety is a top priority here,” said the project’s head of safety.
Nicolas Suazo Farina is the project engineer for KivuWatt. He has been with the project for four years now and he told me that at the peak of the project sometime last year, there were over 500 personnel on site from 27 different countries.
In that mix were dozens of Rwandans including 27-year-old Cyprian Bigirimana, a graduate of Integrated Polytechnic Regional Centre (IPRC-Kigali), who, more than the money he has earned, acknowledges the project for giving him priceless experience and expertise.
Only about 150 workers remain on site given its near completion.
Both Gummerus and Farina said as far as they know, the project is 99.8 per cent complete and the only thing holding them back are a few unanticipated technical malfunctions that saw them lose an entire month and missing the deadline.
At this point of the concession, ContourGlobal is incurring all related costs to the project; the government is only waiting to start buying power from the investor at a cost thought to be around fifteen cents of the dollar.
“Everything is ready, from the production facility to the power plant, all we are waiting for is to sink the separators and extract the gas,” Gummerus said.
How it will be done
In practice, KivuWatt will deliver 25 megawatts of electricity from methane gas but to do that, there are two pairs of separators, long and wide metallic pipe drums weighing several hundred tonnes. These are supposed to be installed some 20 meters underneath the lake.
The separators are important because they separate the methane gas from water before sending it (water) back into the lake, this happens in a continuous cycle.
Simply put, water enters these separators; a mechanical process then ensues in which the gas is extracted and sent up to the production system through pipes.
The water is then pushed back to the lake through an exit-valve on one of the separators. Early July, the first pair of these separators was sunk into the lake to begin the gas extraction process.
However, something wasn’t right with their positioning under the lake making them to malfunction; it was decided that they needed to be retrieved to the lake surface, checked, fixed and re-installed.
The process required professional divers. It also required the presence of the engineers who designed the separators, plus it required the purchase of certain machinery that had to be looked for, imported and flown into the country.
“Everything considered, we have lost about a month,” Gummerus said.
The project has hired six divers from South Africa. They also flew in one of the separators’ designers from Germany. Both expert-teams have been at work, the divers retrieved the separators and the engineer reworked the designs.
As of Friday, last week, they had finished their work and the pair of separators was ready to be reinstalled into the lake when another complication emerged.
The exit-valve on one of the separators had somehow jammed, it wasn’t opening; it means after separating the gas, the water couldn’t be released back into the lake…since the valve was closed.
Engineers spent all Friday trouble-shooting to figure out what was wrong with the valve. Once they fix that, the first pair of the separators will be re-installed into the lake followed by the other pair.
The first gas is expected be extracted this week on Thursday, if the planned installation of the separators is successful; by early next month, the plant will have ‘full gas,’ said Gummerus.
“We should expect to have electricity from the plant to the national grid in mid-October,” he said.
There’s a 14-km pipeline connecting the production centre to the power-plant just a few metres on the lakeshore. Preparations for the second phase of another 25mw are also ongoing; there will be four production centres in total, each with a 25mw capacity.
“With lessons from the pilot phase, these should be much easier to set up,” Gummerus said.