The barge will process the liquid, separate out methane gas (CH4), which is the principal component of natural gas, and return the CO2 safely to the lake. The gas will then be sent by pipeline to a power plant in lakeside town of Kibuye. Methane emitted from coal mines and landfills is often burned to make electricity.
In fact, as Fox explained, the technology behind the Lake Kivu power plan isn't that complex. What's harder is getting the project built in landlocked nation with limited infrastructure. "We're 1,900 kilometers from the closest seaport. The logistics of the job are going to be more challenging than the project itself," he said.
Then again, getting the job done could literally be a matter of life and death. "In the next 200 years, if nothing is done, the lake could erupt," Fox said.
Just as crucial are the potential economic benefits. I've followed the Rwanda story since visiting the country in 2005 with Rick Warren, the evangelical minister, and seeing first-hand the aftermath of the genocide there. In recent years, U.S. corporations, including Starbucks, Costco and Google, have taken an special interest in the country known as the Land of a Thousand Hills (see Why CEOs Love Rwanda). Rwanda's business-friendly president, Paul Kagame, even spoke at a Starbucks annual meeting. A can-do spirit animates their efforts, As Rob Glaser, the tech entrepreneur, once told me: "If you make a Rwanda a better place, you haven't solved all the world's problems but you have demonstrated that the problems can be solved."
But there are troubling reports coming out of Rwanda, too. The Kagame administration has repressed Rwandan journalists, advocacy groups and opposition leaders, according to Amnesty International. Just this month, Human Rights Watch said that the regime's opponents face increasing threats, attacks, and harassment in advance of Rwanda's August 2010 presidential election. Some of this reflects the lingering effects of the 1994 genocide which killed an estimated 800,000 people in about 100 days.
In that context, the Contour Global project is particularly important because economic growth and democracy often go hand-in-hand.The relationship between economic growth and democracy isn't simple but there's considerable evidence that "countries are likely to become democratic if economic growth succeeds in raising their average incomes to high enough levels," according to this analysis by economist Gary Becker.
And, of course, a growing economy needs access to electricity. Google, for example, has a partnership with Rwanda's schools and ministries that will have more if Internet access becomes widespread. As I write this blogpost on my laptop in a coffee shop with free wi-fi in Bethesda, Md., it's easy to forget that one-quarter of the world's population lacks access to electricity.
Making an on-off switch part of their lives is transformative. That's why Bill Fox, who has been in the power business for 30 years, is so jazzed about his work.
"This is a great opportunity for us as Contour Global," Fox said. "Obviously, we're getting paid but it's almost like a mission to be benefiting countries like Rwanda."
GreenBiz.com Senior Writer Marc Gunther is a longtime journalist and speaker whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc maintains a blog at MarcGunther.com. You can follow him on Twitter @marcGunther.
Lake Kivu photo CC-licensed by Flickr user tonikyrinfo.