Ethanol no image

Published on March 8th, 2010 | by Nick Chambers

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Brazil's 10 Millionth Ethanol Flex-Fuel Vehicle Hits the Road

In the world of alternative fuels, Brazilians are lucky. They have some of the best land and climate in the world with which to grow sugarcane–which they have proven is an excellent feedstock for first generation ethanol production.

Not only is it incredibly easy to convert the cane sugar into ethanol through fermentation, they can power much of their ethanol production by burning the material leftover after harvesting and crushing the sugarcane to extract the sweet liquid.

Years ago the Brazilian government realized the potential in this system and started encouraging a major shift to a transportation sector capable of running mostly on ethanol. And now the fruits of their labor are being borne out: The 10 millionth ethanol flex-fuel capable vehicle has been delivered in Brazil.

Almost all vehicles sold in Brazil are flex-fuel capable (up to 85% ethanol blends, E85) and some are even compatible with 100% ethanol (E100). Every gas station in the country sells E85 and almost all sell E100. This has all been accomplished without government subsidies. As the Brazilian sugarcane organization, UNICA, likes to boast, the industry is completely self sustaining at this point. I’ve written about all this in the past, but as a recap, Brazil’s ethanol success is documented in these statistics:

  • All fuel sold in Brazil contains a minimum 20-25% blend of ethanol
  • The unsubsidized Brazilian ethanol industry offers a fuel that is on average $1 below the price of gas
  • Virtually all 33,000 Brazilian gas pumps offer E100
  • Just 1% of the arable land in Brazil is being used to produce sugarcane ethanol
  • 45% of Brazilian fuel for cars is from sugarcane
  • The food industry is growing faster than the ethanol industry, disproving the food vs. fuel arguments in Brazil
  • 90% of all new automobiles sold are flex-fuel automobiles
  • 100% of GM vehicles produced in Brazil are flex-fuel
  • More than 20% of all cars on the road in Brazil are flex-fuel vehicles today

This all lies in stark contrast to the US where decades of contradictory and unsteady biofuels policy has led to a situation where our fledgling ethanol industry is dominated by heavily-subsidized corn ethanol and uber-powerful agri-lobbies in DC—who most often have government-funded corporate profits clearly in their sights, and couldn’t care less about doing what’s right for the people or the environment.

With the new Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS2) just released by the EPA and the Obama administration, the US now has the clearest roadmap it has ever had to building the US ethanol industry into what it could be, but we will still be subsidizing ethanol production heavily even as we move towards a future where cellulosic and algae ethanol promise a subsidy-free, self-sustaining ethanol industry.

As the Detroit Bureau points out, our current biofuels policy is so tortured with ideology, protectionism, and backasswards thinking that we have essentially prohibited the importation of sustainable Brazilian sugarcane ethanol into this country. We apply an insane amount of taxes and tariffs to any incoming ethanol from foreign countries while we simultaneously dump about 45 cents of taxpayer money into subsidizing every gallon of US made ethanol.

Now, I’m not a big proponent of shipping fuels all over the world… that’s something we should really be getting away from in the long term, no? However, if we have a neighboring country that is friendly to us and has a resource they are more than willing to sell that is cheaper and more ecologically sound than anything we could make at the moment, why are we pricing it out of the market? Does that make sense? It’s not right for the people of the US and it’s not right for the environment.

Even though the common sense in this argument seems to favor Brazilian ethanol being sold here, I certainly have very little hope that it will ever be so.

Source: The Detroit Bureau

Image Credit: eugeni_dodonov’s Flickr Photostream. Used under a Creative Commons License.


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About the Author

Not your traditional car guy.



  • Almir

    I will take this opportunity to add some more about Brazilian bio-fuels.

    Brazil created its efficient fuel alternative program in the 70s, when the first oil crisis hit the world. Three decades have passed and now Brazilians drive cars moved by ethanol or gasoline mixed in any proportion. And gasoline in Brazil is not pure, but blended with 25% ethanol, resulting that internal consumption of ethanol in the country is already superior to gasoline’s. Ethanol in Brazil is cheaper than gasoline at current international oil prices.

    Brazilian ethanol is produced from sugarcane without any governmental subsidies and the fuel has a very competitive price. Researchers are increasing the productivity (more fuel extracted per sq.km. of crops) by adapting sugar canes species to each type of land and topography. The productivity now is more than 3 times the records of 30 years ago and it keeps on raising. And new technologies to extract ethanol from cellulosic materials (crop waste) are under development and soon will be available for large scale production.

    Ethanol production in Brazil uses just one percent of total arable land, and the country can expand its sugarcane fields without disturbing sensitive land areas (like Amazon), just by tapping land such as depleted pastures. Just raising intensity of cattle production from the current 0.8 animals per hectare to 1.2 animals (a target already far exceeded in many parts of the country) would release about 80m hectares of land for crops. There remains plenty of room for expansion: the country has 355 million hectares of farmable land, of which 7 million hectares under sugarcane of which the amount used to make ethanol fills 3.4 million hectares (compared to 200m hectares of pasture). Another 105.8 million hectares remained available, which allows Brazil to increase ethanol production without affecting the environment or food. By comparison, the additional terrain for Brazilian crops could surpass all of the land now under cultivation in the European Union.

    Meanwhile, Brazilian food production has doubled in the past decade and that’s the most impressive thing about ethanol from sugarcane: in contrast to corn-based American ethanol or biodiesel derived from soybean oil, there is no cost pressure and no competition with food.

    Another persuasive fact for incentiving ethanol production in Brazil is the electricity generated as a by-product of ethanol processing: taking into consideration the energetic balance, the electricity generated in sugar cane processing in Brazil is almost as large as its ethanol equivalence. It’s like a two large scale hydroelectric plants generating electricity exactly when it’s more necessary: in the Brazilian dry season! So the producers of ethanol are also having increasing revenues by selling electricity to the country’s national electric system, which has become an strategic and reliable source of electricity. For all these reasons, ethanol in Brazil is a win-win game for the country, the farmers, the consumers and the environment.

    Brazilian ethanol does not intend to concur with petroleum, but it could ease up current oil crisis by supplying a small part of the world energy demand. With the existing price of oil, the permanent threat of war in the Middle East and all environmental problems, there seems to be no other easy solution for the energy problem away ethanol. And the world will have to accept the reality of the liquid ethanol from sugarcane as the right and best solution for the oil crisis.

    The problem is that much of Brazil’s ethanol exports continues to face prohibitive tariffs and other barriers to developed markets in the US and Europe. The United States currently places a 54-cent-a-gallon tariff on ethanol imported from Brazil. The developed world appears purposely myopic in relation to the opportunities Brazil presents, maybe it’s because that would upset wealthy US and European farmers – a price apparently not worth paying.

  • Almir

    I will take this opportunity to add some more about Brazilian bio-fuels.

    Brazil created its efficient fuel alternative program in the 70s, when the first oil crisis hit the world. Three decades have passed and now Brazilians drive cars moved by ethanol or gasoline mixed in any proportion. And gasoline in Brazil is not pure, but blended with 25% ethanol, resulting that internal consumption of ethanol in the country is already superior to gasoline’s. Ethanol in Brazil is cheaper than gasoline at current international oil prices.

    Brazilian ethanol is produced from sugarcane without any governmental subsidies and the fuel has a very competitive price. Researchers are increasing the productivity (more fuel extracted per sq.km. of crops) by adapting sugar canes species to each type of land and topography. The productivity now is more than 3 times the records of 30 years ago and it keeps on raising. And new technologies to extract ethanol from cellulosic materials (crop waste) are under development and soon will be available for large scale production.

    Ethanol production in Brazil uses just one percent of total arable land, and the country can expand its sugarcane fields without disturbing sensitive land areas (like Amazon), just by tapping land such as depleted pastures. Just raising intensity of cattle production from the current 0.8 animals per hectare to 1.2 animals (a target already far exceeded in many parts of the country) would release about 80m hectares of land for crops. There remains plenty of room for expansion: the country has 355 million hectares of farmable land, of which 7 million hectares under sugarcane of which the amount used to make ethanol fills 3.4 million hectares (compared to 200m hectares of pasture). Another 105.8 million hectares remained available, which allows Brazil to increase ethanol production without affecting the environment or food. By comparison, the additional terrain for Brazilian crops could surpass all of the land now under cultivation in the European Union.

    Meanwhile, Brazilian food production has doubled in the past decade and that’s the most impressive thing about ethanol from sugarcane: in contrast to corn-based American ethanol or biodiesel derived from soybean oil, there is no cost pressure and no competition with food.

    Another persuasive fact for incentiving ethanol production in Brazil is the electricity generated as a by-product of ethanol processing: taking into consideration the energetic balance, the electricity generated in sugar cane processing in Brazil is almost as large as its ethanol equivalence. It’s like a two large scale hydroelectric plants generating electricity exactly when it’s more necessary: in the Brazilian dry season! So the producers of ethanol are also having increasing revenues by selling electricity to the country’s national electric system, which has become an strategic and reliable source of electricity. For all these reasons, ethanol in Brazil is a win-win game for the country, the farmers, the consumers and the environment.

    Brazilian ethanol does not intend to concur with petroleum, but it could ease up current oil crisis by supplying a small part of the world energy demand. With the existing price of oil, the permanent threat of war in the Middle East and all environmental problems, there seems to be no other easy solution for the energy problem away ethanol. And the world will have to accept the reality of the liquid ethanol from sugarcane as the right and best solution for the oil crisis.

    The problem is that much of Brazil’s ethanol exports continues to face prohibitive tariffs and other barriers to developed markets in the US and Europe. The United States currently places a 54-cent-a-gallon tariff on ethanol imported from Brazil. The developed world appears purposely myopic in relation to the opportunities Brazil presents, maybe it’s because that would upset wealthy US and European farmers – a price apparently not worth paying.

  • ChuckL

    As Almir said, “NO SUBSIDIES.” If biofuels can not stand on their own without subsidies then they are ultimately not viable. Brazil has proven that biofuels can be viable without subsidies.

  • ChuckL

    As Almir said, “NO SUBSIDIES.” If biofuels can not stand on their own without subsidies then they are ultimately not viable. Brazil has proven that biofuels can be viable without subsidies.

  • Mario

    Just a correction. E85 is not sold in Brazil nor their flex fuel cars are limited to E85. In Brazil gasoline (gasohol E25 to E20) and ethanol (E100) are dispensed separately, therefore, their flex-fuel vehicle owners have the freedom to choose any proportion of ethanol they want, depending on the price. E85 is the maximum blend used in the US and Europe because of their cold weather, but Brazil does not have the same limitation, and most of their flex fuel cars have a secondary tank with gasoline to start the engine when temperatures drop below 15C.

  • Mario

    Just a correction. E85 is not sold in Brazil nor their flex fuel cars are limited to E85. In Brazil gasoline (gasohol E25 to E20) and ethanol (E100) are dispensed separately, therefore, their flex-fuel vehicle owners have the freedom to choose any proportion of ethanol they want, depending on the price. E85 is the maximum blend used in the US and Europe because of their cold weather, but Brazil does not have the same limitation, and most of their flex fuel cars have a secondary tank with gasoline to start the engine when temperatures drop below 15C.

  • douglas prince

    Umm, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Brazil one of the poorest countries in the world? Isn’t something like 90% of its population living in ghettos with rats and gang wars every night? And isn’t the majority of its land unpaved forests, farms, and rain forest? So who are buying these 10 million vehicles and where are they being driven?

    • Nick Chambers

      Douglas,

      Brazil has something like the 9th largest economy in the world and is really a modern country by all standards. You can read more about it over at wikipedia:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazil

  • douglas prince

    Umm, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Brazil one of the poorest countries in the world? Isn’t something like 90% of its population living in ghettos with rats and gang wars every night? And isn’t the majority of its land unpaved forests, farms, and rain forest? So who are buying these 10 million vehicles and where are they being driven?

    • Nick Chambers

      Douglas,

      Brazil has something like the 9th largest economy in the world and is really a modern country by all standards. You can read more about it over at wikipedia:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazil

  • Mary Grunewaldt

    I’d like to make a comment on an inaccuracy found in your articles. Flex Fuel cars in Brazil are designed for either 100% alcohol or gasoline that contains over 20% alcohol.

    E85 is not a fuel quality sold in Brazil.

    Regards,

    MaryG

  • Mary Grunewaldt

    I’d like to make a comment on an inaccuracy found in your articles. Flex Fuel cars in Brazil are designed for either 100% alcohol or gasoline that contains over 20% alcohol.

    E85 is not a fuel quality sold in Brazil.

    Regards,

    MaryG

  • Mary Grunewaldt

    Ethanol is not subsidized in Brazil but Biodiesel is. It took Brazil over 15 years to get to the point of no subsidy. USA has a long way to go, if ever.

  • Mary Grunewaldt

    Ethanol is not subsidized in Brazil but Biodiesel is. It took Brazil over 15 years to get to the point of no subsidy. USA has a long way to go, if ever.

  • http://Web Daniel D Martin

    Brazil data for car production 2010 just came out
    production ,3,5 million cars
    slaes of new cars ,more than 3 millions

  • http://Web nana samy

    i want to know whether gasoline can mix with ethanol which is almost like water. because water cannot mix with oil

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