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When Lakes Attack

The Los Angeles Times has a spooky tale to tell. Apparently Lake Kivu, which sits between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a time-bomb waiting to go off, with huge pockets of methane and carbon dioxide on the sea floor that could, potentially, burst to the surface without warning and kill many of the two million people who live around the lake. (A similar explosion happened in 1986 at Cameroon's Lake Nyos, killing 1,700 people—the pic below is the "after" shot of the lake.) In one scenario, a nearby volcano could erupt, and the lava entering the lake could ignite the methane, bringing it all up to the surface at once.

Anyway, the Rwandan is wondering whether it can tap all that methane and use it to generate electricity. The plant could eventually produce about 100 MW of power, twice the daily production of a country where only 5 percent of the population is hooked up to the grid. But, of course, there are risks:

It's a complicated, potentially dangerous process. Removing the gases could destabilize the lake, leading to an unintended release. Engineers must figure out what to do with excess carbon dioxide, a byproduct of the separation process.

"You need to use gentle methods," said Charles Nyirahuku, a government manager in charge of the project.

Fishermen also worry about leaks, recalling pipeline cracks in the previous pilot program that poisoned the water around the facility.

"From time to time, you would see dead fish floating in the water near the plant," said Semajeri Mussa, 35, head of a local fishing cooperative.

Well, no one said it'd be easy, but it sure looks like it's worth a shot. I'd just note two other things. Rwanda seems to get the vast majority of its energy from wood fuel, so a new plant like this could ease the (rather alarming) pace of deforestation in the country. Also, the Times article doesn't mention it, but if this project ever got up and running, wouldn't you also see potential disputes between Rwanda and the DRC over who owns the methane? At this point, though, that's probably the least of their worries.

--Bradford Plumer