Brazil's Sugar Cane-Powered Future

Brazil has cut its reliance on fossil fuels and become the world's leading producer of ethanol fuel. It powers Brazilian cars, farms and industries, and it all comes from the country's sugar cane crops.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

In Brazil, they love ethanol. That's the plant based-gasoline alternative fuel. Brazilians make theirs from sugarcane. Some environmentalists say it costs so much in energy to make ethanol, it's not doing any good.

OK, but as NPR's Julie McCarthy reports, in Brazil, ethanol is doing very well.

JULIE McCARTHY: When the Portuguese planted the first sugarcane here in the 1500s, who could have known it would grow into a $65 billion business that helps deliver clean energy?

(Soundbite of harvesting sugarcane)

McCARTHY: On this last day of harvest, Antonio de Santos Behera(ph) will cut 10 tons of the tall reedy plant, his daily average. Two-thirds of what the cane cutters collect on this sprawling farm will go to make sugar, the rest will go to make ethanol.

Brazil, this year, will produce over four billion gallons of ethanol, about the same as U.S. ethanol production from corn, according to Jose Goldemberg. He's a pioneer in Brazil's ethanol industry and environment secretary for the state of Sao Paolo, the water rich site of most of Brazil's sugar fields.

Mr. JOSE GOLDEMBERG (Environment Secretary, Sao Paolo, Brazil): Production today is large in Brazil and is going to increase by 50 percent in the next five years. And it's renewable, so it does not contribute to global warming.

McCARTHY: Environmentalists, however, worry that with 500 varieties of sugarcane, some hybrids could push into the delicate ecosystem of the Savannah or Suhado(ph). Conservation International's Gustavo Fonseca says original sugar plantations already destroyed Brazil's species-rich Atlantic Forest.

Mr. GUSTAVO FONSECA (Conservation International): Unless you have a way of securing the sensitive lands, you might see a future that's pretty much like what happened with the Atlantic Forest in the state of Sao Paulo, which is something that we wouldn't like to see into the future.

MCARTHY: The owners at Antonio's farm expanded, gambling the futures in ethanol.

(Soundbite of machine)

They make it here. At this labyrinth of plates, multi-story distilleries and bubbling vats of what looks like sludge and smells like beer gone bad. Ethanol is in fact the same alcohol found in liquor.

Mr. MARCOS CARLOSHI(ph) (Quality Control Manager, Biologist): (Speaking in foreign language)

MCARTHY: Quality Control Manager, Biologist Marcos Carlochi says sugar and yeast ferment like moonshine. Step one in turning sugarcane into something that can power a car. The brown soup is then distilled into clear liquid, the biofuel ethanol. The factory is powered by burning the refuse from sugar making. Sugar mills essentially run on cane. Its claimed that sugar ethanol provides eight times the energy used to grow and process it. Jose Goldenberg says ethanol revived Brazil's sugarcane industry, giving growers two products to sell.

Mr. JOSE GOLDENBERG (Professor, Department of Medicine, Federal University of Sao Paulo): When the government encouraged the production of ethanol, the growers of sugarcane loved it.

MCARTHY: With the oil shock of the 1970s, the government mandated gasoline be mixed with ethanol and promoted an all-ethanol-fueled car. In the late '80s, a sugar shortage and falling gasoline prices ended that experiment. But before it was over, the country's filling stations all had ethanol pumps. Once cheap ethanol returned, consumers were blending their own gasoline and alcohol.

Mr. HENRY JOSEPH (Energy and Environment Commission, Auto Industry Association): We call that a cocktail. They know how to blend by their self, of course, due to the price.

MCARTHY: Henry Joseph, who heads the Auto Industry Association's Energy and Environment Commission, says it wasn't long before car companies rolled out flexible fuel cars, which take either gasoline or ethanol.

At this filling station outside Sao Paulo, ethanol is half the price of gasoline. And even if a tank of ethanol takes you only 70 percent as far as it tank a gas, it's still more economical. And if ethanol is scarce because of bad sugar crop, consumers can switch to gas. Henry Joseph says flex-fueled cars, which debuted just three years ago are flying out of showrooms.

Mr. JOSEPH: Practically 80 percent of total sales in Brazil are flexible fuel cars. We have sold already 2.3 million flexible fuel cars in this parish.

MCARTHY: Sao Paulo's environment chief notes that most of Brazil's greenhouse gases, come not from cars, but deforestation. Still, Jose Goldenberg says ethanol has replaced 40 percent of gasoline in Brazil. He says to replace 10 percent of the gasoline used in the world would require 10 times the amount of sugarcane Brazil currently cultivates for ethanol.

Mr. JOSEPH: Ethanol is not going to be the solution. It would be one contribution.

MCARTHY: In the meantime, it has made Brazil increasingly reliant on renewable energy.

Julie Mcarthy, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY.

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