Rwanda adds peat to energy mix

Lydia Cole
RWANDA recently celebrated the opening of its first peat-fired power plant at Gishoma in the far west of the country, a US$39,2 million project.

It is the first of its kind in Africa.

Another larger peat plant, costing US$350 million is under development in Gisagara to the east. The plan is for Gishoma to start feeding 15MW of electricity into the national grid imminently, and Gisagara 80MW by 2019.

The Rwandan government is hoping to achieve its goal of connecting 70 percent of the country’s 11,7 million people to the national grid by 2018. This is a near three-fold increase on the number connected at present. The peat-to-power plant at Gishoma will contribute to this goal. It will reduce Rwanda’s reliance on expensive imports of diesel oil for power generation.

At the moment, only 25 percent of households have access to the 190MW of power generated in the country. But over the next two years the capacity is projected to reach 563MW in line with national development goals.

This increase will be made possible in part through the harnessing of power from peat.

Peat provides an effective energy source when dried, comprising a minimum of 30 percent organic matter.

It develops under anaerobic conditions, where waterlogging significantly slows or prevents decomposition of dead vegetation. As vegetation grows in the surface layers, it absorbs atmospheric carbon through the process of photosynthesis. When it dies, this carbon is stored in the accumulating substrate which is peat.

Peatlands are found across the world but they are concentrated within certain regions where high humidity or low temperatures reduce the rate of decomposition.

These include the coastal lowlands of Southeast Asia or northern Russia’s permafrost zones.

Despite covering just three percent of the world’s ice-free land surface, peatlands store up to 30 percent of its total soil carbon stock, making them the most efficient carbon storage facility we have. But, arguably, not a renewable one.

Though each peatland varies, one centimetre depth of peat may take an average of 10 years to accumulate, and less than 10 minutes to burn.

Rwanda’s energy comes from a diverse mix of renewable sources.

Hydro-power is the main contributor at 59 percent, followed by thermal (40 percent) and methane (one percent). There are also ambitious plans for off-grid power from solar.

Peat power is considered one of these more sustainable indigenous sources of energy. It has the potential to contribute nearly 20 percent to the national energy supply in five years’ time.

It’s estimated that there will be sufficient peat deposits to power Rwanda for 30 years, or some proportion of the country at least.

The enhanced power that will come from the Gishoma and Gisagara peat-to-power plants is seen as an important part of the country’s development mission.

The plans are enabled through financial support from the African Finance Corporation, the Development Bank of Rwanda and the Finnish Development Finance Company, among other lenders.

Finland has expertise in peat extraction and its use in the energy industry, with an average of five percent of its national supply coming from peat.

But where is Rwanda’s peat?

The Gishoma plant is nestled within the Nyungwe Forest National Park. This is an untouched natural rainforest that is filled with exciting biodiversity.

The park’s website boasts of the presence of hundreds of species of trees and orchids within the park, such as the swamp-dwelling Eulophia horsfellii.

It’s also host to numerous plant species of medicinal value, like the East African satinwood, Zanthoxylum gilletii, and to one of the last stable populations of chimpanzees in East Africa.

But there is no mention of peat. It’s evidently not a key feature for the average tourist.

There are vast areas of peatlands across the Tropics that we are only now starting to map and understand their full extent and carbon content.

For example, it was only a few months ago that the first map of the world’s largest tropical peat complex was published.

Around 145 500 square kms of peat swamp forest was found in the central Congo Basin. — The Conservation Africa

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