Brazil's Sweet Taste of Ethanol

With an abundance of sugar cane in Brazil, drivers are able to fill their tanks with ethanol at much cheaper prices than gasoline. Liz Marshall, a senior economist at the World Resources Institute speaks with host Guy Raz.

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GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

The global oil crisis is fraying nerves from Wall Street to Main Street and it's reopened the question of how the United States might become energy independent. Perhaps a little more like Brazil where few seem concerned about the availability of fuel. The reason? Well, Brazil is energy independent and a big part of it has to do with a bounty of biofuels.

NPR's Julie McCarthy has our story from Rio de Janeiro.

JULIE McCARTHY: Standing at a filling station on a median strip across from Copacabana beach, I recalled the first time I filled up a car in Brazil. I pull into this mammoth gas station full of truckers who had signs on their tire flaps that said things like, roads are like women, the curvier they are, the more dangerous.

I stepped from the car in the middle of nowhere spoiled for choice. There was ethanol, gasoline, diesel, even natural gas. I was giddy filling up my first tank of pure alcol - alcohol; Brazil's name for ethanol. The gas station had never seen a more satisfied customer. I swelled with pride for Brazil. I said to myself, they've won the lottery, taking up on biofuels for a third less what it cost to take up on fossil fuels.

But all is not roses. Fuel prices are substantially higher compared to the U.S. At the Copacabana station I ask gas attendant Isais Rodrigues(ph)…

Tell me, how much are you selling gasoline for here?

Mr. ISAIS RODRIGUES (Gas Attendant): (Portuguese spoken)

MCCARTHY: They sell it by the liter. But in this relatively affluent part of town, it works out to be about $7.05 a gallon for premium, $6.20 a gallon for regular, and $3.95 a gallon for ethanol. Most cars sold in Brazil have flexible fuel engines that can accommodate both gasoline and ethanol.

Muriana Suarez(ph) pulls up and fills up with ethanol.

Ms. MURIANA SUAREZ (Resident): (Portuguese spoken)

MCCARTHY: It's much cheaper than gasoline, she says, even though a tank of ethanol burns faster than a tank of gasoline, it still comes out cheaper per mile, she miles. The price isn't the only thing that's got Brazilians breathing easier. With cars burning biofuel in Rio, the air seems cleaner than say, Caracas. In oil-rich Venezuela, gasoline is cheaper than bottled water and the air can be choking.

Brazilian ethanol is not made from corn as it is in the U.S. It's made from sugar cane. Standing on one of the vast plantations that carpet the state of Sao Paulo, I marveled at the cane cutters. They slash and stack between 12 and 18 tons of cane a day, whistling while they work. President Lula da Silva defends against critics who say biofuel production shouldn't take precedence over food production.

He argues that sugar cane ethanol is eight times more efficient to produce than corn ethanol. Biofuels are just a part of Brazil's energy bonanza. Just a few miles from Rio's shore deep in the sea bed, geologists from the state oil company Petrobras have discovered what they say could be billions of barrels of oil. All this energy is a point of pride for Brazilians who decided decades ago to cut a path of independence from the uncertainty of world oil supplies.

The old joke goes, Brazil is a land of great potential and always will be. But in a world craving ever more energy, you cannot pull into a gas station or view the vast fields of sugar cane and not believe that Brazil has done something extraordinary; found a cost-effective alternative to gasoline.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

RAZ: So why can't the United States do the same has Brazil has done? We put that question to Liz Marshall. She's a biofuels expert with the World Resources Institute.

Ms. LIZ MARSHALL (Biofuels Expert, World Resources Institute): Primarily the main ingredients in the cost of ethanol is the cost of the seed stock. So the cost of growing sugar cane. As we know here, the cost of growing corn and the - of providing that as a feed stock is going up.

RAZ: Why is sugar-based ethanol more efficient to produce than corn-based ethanol?

MARSHALL: It's efficient - it's more efficient for a couple of reasons. One is because the per acre yields are so much higher. So you can get anywhere from 750 to 870 gallons of ethanol per acre from sugar cane. Whereas corn, really, you can push it to 400 but estimates are really closer to 320 to 400 gallons per acre.

RAZ: So more than two times the amount.

MARSHALL: So more than two times in terms of land use intensity. But that's only part of the picture because the other part of the picture is how much energy are you using to grow the crops. And corn is a nitrogen intensive crop. It requires a lot of fertilizer which requires a lot of energy to produce. So you're putting in a lot of energy to get out the energy that you want.

Sugar cane uses half of the fertilizer. And sugar cane also has the advantage that the residue that's left behind, you press the sugar out, you turn that into ethanol, but the residue that's left behind is an energy source that's used to power the conversion process. So it's much, much more energy efficient to produce ethanol from sugar cane which provides its own process heat and has higher yields per acre than it is to produce it from corn.

RAZ: But let me ask you perhaps a naive question here, climates in Florida, Louisiana, couldn't then sustain large sugar plantations?

MARSHALL: We are starting to see development of sugar-based ethanol in places in the south. Traditionally there hasn't been an incentive to convert sugar into ethanol in the United States because we have price support policies that make it more profitable to put sugar into sugar use rather than into ethanol use.

RAZ: So in theory we could make ethanol from sugar which is, you say, is far more efficient to do than to make it from corn.

MARSHALL: In parts of - in parts of the country, yes.

RAZ: Now we've been hearing for a few years now that Brazil is essentially energy independent. How much of that is because of its ethanol production; it's homegrown ethanol production?

MARSHALL: Well ethanol accounts for about 20 percent of their total liquid fuel use.

RAZ: Now how does their ethanol consumption in Brazil with ours?

MARSHALL: They, interestingly, although they are put forward as sort of the poster child for ethanol development, we produce more ethanol than they do.

RAZ: If the United States produces more ethanol than Brazil, how is it that we're energy independent? What is it that Brazil is doing that we're not doing?

MARSHALL: Well I think if there is a lesson that we can learn from Brazil in terms of energy independence, it's that the first step towards reaching energy independent is keeping your fuel demand to a level where you can reasonably expect to meet it domestically. We consume approximately nine times as much liquid fuel as they do. So the problem is keeping your fuel demand down in the first place so that you can satisfy a significant portion of it using an alternative fuel.

RAZ: Liz Marshall is a senior economist on the biofuels production and policy project at the World Resources Institute. Liz Marshall, thanks for being with us.

MARSHALL: Thank you for having me.

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