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.