As natural disasters go, the limnic eruption -- an explosion of gas from beneath a lake -- of Lake Nyos in Cameroon in 1986 ranks among the most horrifying and bizarre: About 1,700 people and 3,500 livestock were suffocated when a large cloud of CO2 descended silently on their villages.
Lake Kivu, one of Africa's great lakes, which lies on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, poses a similar danger because vast amounts of methane gas and CO2 are buried in its depths. At the same time, rural Rwanda desperately needs more electricity -- only about 6 percent of the nation's 9.7 million people are connected to the electricity grid, according to the government.
To Contour Global, a private company that specializes in power-generation projects in the global south, this is a business opportunity. The company has embarked on an ambitious $325 million plan to extract the methane gas from the lake to provide about 100 megawatts of gas-fired electricity to Rwanda.
To put that in context, total generating capacity in Rwanda is now just 69 megawatts -- about 10 percent of the capacity of a single coal-fired power plant in the U.S.
Recently, I spoke will Bill Fox, senior vice president of Contour Global, who is overseeing the Lake Kivu project. The company, he told me, was founded in 2005 by Joe Brandt, a former executive with the global power generation company AES, and funded by Reservoir Capital, a $4 billion investment fund. Contour Global and Reservoir Capital are based in New York.
Fox, who is 62, spent most of his career in the U.S. before joining Contour Global two years ago. Since then, he has managed a hydroelectric project in Brazil and made four trips to Lake Kivu.
"The country, under President Kagame, has a very ambitious goal to increase the electrification rate," Fox told me. "They're going about it in a major way, building transmission and generation."
The technology behind the Lake Kivu project is a bit of a mystery to me but, as Fox explained it, Contour Global will build a gas extraction facility that will be mounted on a big barge. It will then siphon gases to the surface from a depth of about 350 meters.
"If you can picture a champagne bottle that's open, where the bubbles rise to the surface and they drag the liquid with it, that's what's happening in the lake," Fox said.