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It is remarkable that Brazil's sugar-cane ethanol industry is used as the exemplary "poster child" to justify ethanol production in the USA.
  • We have been led to believe that Brazil's production provides 40% of their transportation sector's requirements. [Source] Not so. It produces an amount of ethanol equal to 40% of the gasoline consumed in Brazil. Read the coded message in this explanation from Wikipedia:
    "Presently the use of ethanol as fuel by Brazilian cars - as pure ethanol and in gasohol - replaces gasoline at the rate of about 27,000 cubic metres per day, or about 40% of the fuel that would be needed to run the fleet on gasoline alone. However, the effect on the country's oil consumption was much smaller than that. Although Brazil is a major oil producer and now exports gasoline (19,000 m/day), it still must import oil because of internal demand for other oil byproducts, chiefly diesel fuel (which cannot be easily replaced by ethanol)." [Source]

    The author is conveniently leaving out some important details. Let's dig into this a little deeper:

    • In 2004 (latest year of statistics), Brazil produced 3.989 billion gallons of anhydrous (apparently denatured) ethanol, or 0.3 EJ/year. Ethanol production in Brazil has been fairly flat.
    • In 2005 Brazil consumed 83.6x10^6 metric tonnes of crude, or 3.6 EJ/year
    • For Brazil, ethanol is therefore 0.30/3.6 = 8.3% of crude oil energy. This fraction has been fairly constant.
    • In March 2006, the volumetric fractions of all transportation fuels consumed in Brazil were
      • Diesel fuel = 53.9%
      • Gasoline = 26.2%
      • Ethanol = 17% (40% of gasoline energy)
      • Natural gas = 2.9%
    • Therefore the energy in Brazil's gasoline is 0.3 EJ per year of ethanol / 40% = 0.75 EJ/year
    • The energy in US gasoline is 19.4 EJ/year
    • Therefore the overall ratio of gasoline energy in Brazil to gasoline energy in the USA = 0.75/19.4 = 3.87%
    • The population of Brazil is ~185 million people; the US population is 300 million people.
    • So, on a per capita basis, the ratio of gasoline in Brazil to gasoline in the USA = (0.75/185) / (19.4/300) = 6.2%. Stated differently, Brazilians' driving habits are equivalent to Americans driving 6.2% * 365 = 23 days per year, or every 16 days, roughly once every two weeks. Now, take ethanol's 40%, and with Brazil's biofuels bounty, Americans would drive 6.2% * 40% * 365 = 9 days per year, once every 40 days.

      In this context, is Brazil's ethanol "success story" worth writing home about?

    • For further comparisons,
      • In 2004 the US produced 3.410 billion gallons of anhydrous, denatured ethanol, or 0.27 EJ/yr
      • In 2005 the US produced 3.904 billion gallons of anhydrous denatured ethanol, or 0.29 EJ/yr.
      • In 2005 the US consumed 944.6x10^6 metric tonnes of crude, or 41 EJ/year.

    This analysis thanks to Tad Patzek.

  • "Brazil is gifted with a full third of the world's remaining rainforests; unfortunately, it is also one of the world's great rainforest destroyers, burning or felling more than 2.7 million acres each year." [Source]
  • In addition to eliminating the carbon sequestration provided by the trees, converting forest to cultivation releases methane from the decomposing root systems.
  • Workers in the Brazilian sugar cane industry are heavily exploited. [Below]
  • Ethanol produces aldehydes and other carcinogenic components in exhaust. [Below]
Is this a track record for America to emulate? Will America import Brazilian ethanol and compound this misery? [Ed.]

Sufferings of Brazilian Sugar Cane Workers, by Milton Maciel, former Secretary of Agriculture [2006 May 2]

"In Brazil 1 million men and women work in the sugar cane/sugar/ethanol industry. The largest part of them have permanent jobs in plantations, mills and distilleries. Around 200 000 have temporary (6 months) jobs cutting cane during the harvest time. THESE are the "suffering Brazilian sugar cane workers" ... We're going to expose their inhumane work load, health risks and low wages with details."
Brazil's ethanol program struggles to make a dent, by Jack Chang, Knight Ridder Newspapers [2006 April 30]
"Brazil's booming ethanol industry has won international acclaim, but recent supply and pricing problems suggest that it's not the grand solution to tight oil supplies and ever-rising prices that had been hoped..."
Current status of air pollution in Sao Paulo, Brazil: effects and problems associated with the introduction of ethanol-fueled motor vehicles, by M Kabuto, S Tsugane, GS Hamada [1990 May]
" ... a current problem specific to ethanol-fuel is the aldehydes or other carcinogenic components in exhaust. Peak formaldehyde concentration, for example, have been reported to have reached 159 ppb in SPMA, which may be one of the highest levels shown in ambient air."
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