Notes from Windward: #67


Why not Ethanol: it works for Brazil?

     Windward is about modeling a community approach to the challenge of feeding and fueling ourselves using locally available renewable resources, and while that goal is straight-forward enough, there are many different ways to proceed. To address the fuel part of that challenge, we're working on updating the century-old process of converting waste wood into methanol, known in the old days as "wood alcohol."

     But there's a lot of talk about ethanol going around, and corporate American is currently building more than a hundred facilities to convert corn into ethanol for use as an automotive fuel. Most of the people taking a position agree that bio-ethanol is going to have a major impact--the debate is pretty much about whether it's going to really good or really bad.

     When the question is raised of whether it's even feasible to fuel American cars on ethanol, Brazil is usually the example that's used to support the premise that it is. Byron King recently wrote what I thought was a concise and cogent description of why the example of Brazil isn't relevant to the US. I thought it worth sharing, especially since it sheds light on some of the sustainability issues involved--and so with the kind permission of the Whiskey and Gunpowder newsletter...

     Brazil really does have quite a robust ethanol program going on, the product of 30 years and more of consistent national policy and massive investment. That alone should offer a sobering contrast to the on-again, off-again approach to a national energy policy in the U.S. But pointing out the flaws of the U.S. approach to producing ethanol from corn is not the same thing as saying “no.” And there is no harm in making an honest assessment of the U.S. approach, to include pointing out the contrasts with the Brazilian program.

     Brazil is located, for the most part, in a tropical climate and, as some of the letters note, cultivates up to several crops per year of sugar cane that is specially bred for the purpose. Sugar cane is cultivated on a six-seven-year cycle, and its growth and cultivation requires far fewer inputs of manufactured nutrients than corn. (For example, sugar cane fixes nitrogen from the air through Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus, and hence does not require nitrate fertilizer.) Sugar cane cultivation uses up about 1% of Brazil’s arable land, and tends not to be a significant cause of soil erosion, because the soil remains covered most of the year, or all year round. Most sugar cane fields in Brazil are not irrigated, and the sugar cane is watered solely via rainfall. Almost all of the sugar cane waste from making ethanol is fed to animals, mulched, and/or otherwise returned to the soil.

     Chemical inputs to sugar cane cultivation in Brazil are so low, in most instances, that most Brazilian sugar cane farms would meet or exceed the standard U.S. definitions for “organic” agriculture. Many Brazilian sugar cane farms have entire ecosystems of flora and fauna that have evolved, literally, in the shade of the cane crops. Numerous almost-extinct species have come to thrive in and around sugar cane plantations. Compare this with the so-called “monoculture” agriculture model that dominates in many parts of the U.S., or the almost sterile soil in many agricultural areas of the U.S. that can only support crop growth via liberal application of natural gas-derived or oil-based fertilizers.

     But manufacturing ethanol to use as automotive fuel is more than just an agricultural process. There are demographic and cultural variables, as well. Brazil has a population of about 184 million, or about 61% of the U.S. population. Yet Brazil has a fleet of vehicles that is only 12% of the total American fleet (28 million vehicles in Brazil, versus over 230 million vehicles in the U.S.) There is almost nothing comparable to “suburban commuting” in Brazil. Urban development in Brazil never led to affluent classes of people living in distant suburbia and commuting to work and shop. Most affluent and middle-class people in Brazil live near their workplaces and schools, or commute by train, bus, or subway to their workplaces and other destinations. In fact, in Brazil, the suburbs are pretty much synonymous with squalor and poverty. (On that subject, as applied to the evolution of U.S. suburbia, see James Kunstler’s arresting and remarkable book The Long Emergency.

     The net energy result is that Brazil’s gasoline consumption is only 4 billion gallons per year, which is supplemented by ethanol consumption of an equal amount. So 50% of what would otherwise be total gasoline demand is replaced by ethanol in Brazil. Compare Brazilian gasoline consumption of 4 billion gallons per year with a total of over 140 billion gallons per year of gasoline consumption in the U.S. In other words, Brazil’s gasoline consumption is about 2.9% (yes, you are reading it right, less than 3%) of U.S. gasoline consumption. No wonder that Brazil can meet its needs with ethanol.

     So when I point out all of these facts, I am not trying to be “Dr. No” to peoples’ illusions of the future energy supply for the U.S. My view is that the “sugar cane” ethanol model of Brazil is simply not a realistic comparison to the U.S. effort to pretend to obtain its transportation fuel needs from corn-derived ethanol. In many respects, the U.S. is fooling only itself.

     It is not industrially, socially, or politically difficult for Brazil to replace 50% of its gasoline requirement when that nation consumes only 8 billion gallons of transportation fuel per year. And it is helpful that Brazil has a tropical climate, in which a unique plant thrives, growing in the rain and under tropical conditions, and utilizing less than 1% of Brazil’s arable land. Good for Brazil! It is just that you cannot extrapolate Brazil’s program and scale it up to the massive and voluminous U.S. requirement for transportation fuel, certainly not by using corn.

     The U.S. can do no such thing that Brazil is accomplishing. Circumstances are just plain different. So the U.S. is wasting its resources and time in a boondoggle effort to make significant amounts of transportation fuel from corn that will eventually prove to be futile. The American political class needs to stop viewing Peak Oil, and the ominous future energy situation of the world, as just another political issue. It is long past time to get rational and serious about developing a long-term energy policy for the country.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 67