Lessons from Brazil

"Brazil has it figured out; why can't we?"

The following claim from Tom Daschle and Vinod Khosla appeared in their recent New York Times editorial, Miles Per Cob (now behind a pay wall):

As Brazil's "energy independence miracle" proves, an aggressive strategy of investing in petroleum substitutes like ethanol can end dependence on imported oil.

You may have also recently seen Dan Rather's report The Ethanol Solution, in which he gushes over Brazil's ethanol success and wonders why we don't heed their example. Perhaps you heard Frank Sesno on CNN's We Were Warned ask why the U.S. is not following Brazil's example. The mainstream media have it figured out. The politicians have it figured out. Many ordinary Americans have it figured out. We just need to apply the Brazilian example to the U.S., and we will end our dependence on foreign oil. But is it as simple as that? Let's investigate.

Warning: Reality Check Ahead

According to Per Capita Oil Consumption and Production, oil consumption in Brazil is 4.2 barrels per person per year. In the U.S., oil consumption is 27 barrels per person per year, 6.4 times as much per person as Brazil's.

However, we do produce much more oil per person than Brazil. Each year the U.S. produces 11 barrels per person, compared to 3.35 barrels per person for Brazil. In order to achieve energy independence, the gap between demand and production must be closed. Brazil has to close a gap of 0.85 barrels per person per year (4.2 - 3.35). They produce sufficient ethanol to close this gap, and therefore they are energy independent. The U.S., on the other hand, has to close a gap of 16 barrels per person per year. The U.S. gap in production/demand is almost 19 times greater than the production/demand gap in Brazil.

Clearly, the U.S. has quite a large gap to close. But this is a difficult proposition. Not only do we use more energy per person, but the population of the U.S. is 110 million greater than that of Brazil. According to my calculations, we can't possibly hope to close the production/demand gap with grain ethanol. Others have shown the futility of closing that gap with cellulosic ethanol here and here.

The Real Lesson from Brazil

Yes, Brazil has in fact "figured it out" with respect to energy independence. But the reason they achieved energy independence is primarily because of their frugal energy usage, not because of ethanol. Increase their energy usage to U.S. levels, and the "energy independence miracle" would quickly vanish. This is the factor that the media and the politicians have overlooked. On the other hand, if the U.S. had the same per capita energy consumption as Brazil, we would be net oil exporters. In fact, our per capita energy consumption could be 11 barrels per person per year - triple the consumption of Brazil - and our production and demand would be in balance. We would be energy independent.

The real lesson from Brazil is that energy independence can be achieved by slashing our energy usage. It is simply not realistic to expect the U.S. to achieve energy independence with biofuels - unless we sharply curb our consumption. The next time you hear someone say we should emulate Brazil's example, ask them to calculate the amount of ethanol this would require, and ask them how we are supposed to produce that much. It is time to start demanding details from the "Brazil believers". In doing so, we may convey the gravity of the situation to those who think ethanol will lead us to energy independence.

The Secretary of Agriculture for Louisiana was on the local radio today.  There is law before the legislature that any ethanol sold in Louisiana must come from in-state plants.

He went on for a bit on how much more energy efficent sugar cane was than corn as a source of ethanol.  He mentioned briefly that it might be better to get some sugar out of the cane and use the residue (molasses) to make ethanol.

No numbers though.

I am anti-corn ethanol, but uncertain about sugar cane ethanol .  If a source of oxygenated additive for gasoline is needed in polluted areas, using sugar cane ethanol is probably the best additive.  A useful niche.

Beyond that I am uncertain.

if you have a subscription or other access, Nature has an article on New Orleans.  Apparently some areas sank more than thought over the last few years.

Nature 441, 587-588 (1 June 2006) | doi:10.1038/441587a; Published online 31 May 2006
Space geodesy: Subsidence and flooding in New Orleans

A subsidence map of the city offers insight into the failure of the levees during Hurricane Katrina.

It has long been recognized that New Orleans is subsiding and is therefore susceptible to catastrophic flooding. Here we present a new subsidence map for the city, generated from space-based synthetic-aperture radar measurements, which reveals that parts of New Orleans underwent rapid subsidence in the three years before Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. One such area is next to the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO) canal, where levees failed during the peak storm surge: the map indicates that this weakness could be explained by subsidence of a metre or more since their construction.

emphasis mine

"As global sea level is rising at an average rate of about 2 mm yr-1 (ref. 1), most of New Orleans is subsiding relative to the global mean sea level at an average rate of about 8 mm yr-1."

Nearly one centimetre a year!

It has long been recognized that New Orleans is subsiding and is therefore susceptible to catastrophic flooding.

Such matters not to Alan.   He's on record saying the only cities worth spending any ewffort on is NYC, San Fancisco and New Orleans.

Take energy and money from other non-failing places and prop up the failures.

Interesting choice of words..
"Prop up the failures"

Brings to mind the CinC himself and his gang, instead of a city that has suffered a great deal of national neglect, and in fact is a key piece of our cultural history, as well as an infrastructural base for the functioning of the Mississippi, our greatest export freight engine in the country.  There has been plenty of poor development planning in N.O., but to call the city a 'failure' is particularly narrow.

I wonder if that phrase is also considered when you see bailouts of big businesses and industries that don't seem to be able to justify themselves in the 'free market', but get treated like national treasures, to the chagrin of better alternatives (Trucking and Air Freight vs Rail..)

  I've heard Alan advocate for the support and reinvigoration of cities like N.O., SanFran and NY, but I never heard him say these were the only places deserving all of our Urban Development attentions.  To the contrary, he has offered that making a few cities into examples of smarter rail and commuting options would help show other cities what's possible, and see numbers for how beneficial it would be.

  So what would you call the Non-failing places?

I will find time to respond more fully later.

One of the three carless people that I evacuated in my car for Katrina was a Tulane student from Wisconsin.  Needless to say I am in good standing with her parents and do not have to pick up the check when they visit.

Her mother recently mentioned that her view of small town Wisconsin had changed.  They were driving to the store and she wondered aloud why they had to drive.  "See, the houses are so far apart, you could have at least twice as many in there and we could all live closer together.  And we could have sidewalks everywhere.   I liked it better when I walked to the store in New Orleans.  You don't meet or see anyone driving".

She has also told me how much she misses the St. Charles streetcar (as do I, open again in 2007) and how "great" it was to take it downtown.

Some few people listen to New Urbanist nerds (who still do not have it quite right, they STILL need New Orleans to learn from).  More people learn by living and experiencing.

I just got my first visit to your city this weekend (Working on the ESPN Poker Tourny at Harrah's..talk about the belly of the beast)..  and what a great place!  I was staying and working right near the Riverside Market, and only walked while I was there, but the trolleys I saw were a great temptation, and an inspiring sight!

I lived in NYC for 19 years, and rode the MTA prodigiously, besides hoofing it.  I built my daughter a 'Redbird' toybox for her first Christmas Gift.. those are the classic NYC '7' Trains that connect Flushing, Queens with Times Square, but I have to fill the other spot in her Toybox garage, and it might have to be a N.O. Trolley!  The other option was a London Double-decker, but Red has already been taken, alas..

Bob Fiske

(Nice Job on the Website you linked us to yesterday!  Made your points, but it wasn't too long to get through quickly.  I didn't have a problem with 6000 Princes remark, though I suppose it could be inflammatory in some circles)


More people learn by living and experiencing.

You can learn for the price of a plane ticket to an average town in the south of France. Besides, it's fun. Welcome!

Dear Richard, I am spending as much money as possible here in New Orleans, we need it to survive and recover. Besides, I can get better food and music here than in France ! Thank You for the help that France has given. It is much appreciated !! The French come in and ask "What needs to be done ? What has FEMA missed or delayed ?" For example, Paribus bank is rebuilding five fire stations to give minimal coverage in the drowned areas. Although the US is a culinary desert, New Orleans has better food than France. Throw French peasants into the swamp, add African, Spanish, Native American influences, wait 250 years and see what results !
I don't know about San Francisco and New Orleans, but New York City pays $13 billion more in federal taxes than it receives in federal spending -- even after 9/11!  I'm not sure where you are, but it's more likely that New York is propping up where you live than vice versa.
Most places pay in more than they get out - how else can we fund our wars? Maybe farm states with low population and large subidies are an exception, but there is no reason to think NO is one, too.
He went on for a bit on how much more energy efficent sugar cane was than corn as a source of ethanol.

This certainly appears to be the case in Brazil. I never quite understood why the U.S. doesn't have sugar cane ethanol plants in places where we grow sugar cane. The claimed EROI is much better. Maybe the process is too dependent upon manual labor?

I have taken exception to some aspects of the USDA's corn ethanol studies, but one thing they have done a decent job on is surveying ethanol plants to determine actual energy inputs and outputs. I would like to see something like that done for Brazilian sugar cane ethanol plants, so we can get a feel for the true EROI. For example, do most Brazilian ethanol plants burn bagasse for steam? Or is this a rarity, yet the basis for the EROI claims?


Robert -

Back in the early 1900's, sugar cane was grown from Mississippi to the Rio Grande Valley, basically following the Gulf Coast. Sugarland is a suburb of Houston, home of Tom Delay (vomitous mass) and formerly Domino Sugar. The principal crop in most of the coastal counties of Texas and Louisiana was in fact sugar cane.

With the rise in the US dollar and cheap imports, guess what happened to the sugar cane industry? So, tariffs and subsidies were put in place. The net result is that it is often more profitable NOT to grow your cane.....

But the land and climate along the Gulf Coast is well suited to this crop, and we have farmed it intensively before. But not with sustainable rotations - just chemical inputs.

I watched a special on the Brazilian ethanol plants - they do use bagasse for steam routinely, and they also rotate crops to replenish their fields and avoid overuse of chemical inputs to help EROI. And yes, the waste is used as cattle feed to further offset cost.

Brazil is also researching using their "pencil plant" as an ethanol input. This is a very hardy and fast growing succulent, with a very high sugar content and loads of sap. It grows very well in extremely marginal soils, and is often the first plant to "fill back" in clear cuts in Brazil.

There is a very similar setup south of Lafayette Louisiana on I-49, left over from the late 1970's. This plant was also fired with bagasse, and the large ethanol stills are all lined up along the entrance to the mill. I walked through it about 4 years ago, just to see how it was put together before I built my personal still. It was abandoned when the bottom fell out of the oil industry in the 1980's.

Just maybe somebody will retool it and fire her up again soon, especially if Louisiana passes their "only Louisiana ethanol" law.

I wonder if sugar cane has taken a beating bc/ it competes with corn syrup in this country. With the heavy corn subsidies, corn syrup is artificially cheap.  Maybe if corn were not so heavily subsidized farmers could grow sugar cane in the gulf area profitably.
i think you are right - get rid of all ag subsidies and let the grain mix change - we'd see less corn and lots more amaranth, switchgrass, etc.
the other subsidy that sugar has enjoyed is slave labor. Sugarland is also home to 4 units of the Texas Department of Corrections and the prison system not only operated its own farms but also rented the prisoners out to local plantations. American Sugar in south Florida imported Dominican and Haitian "guest workers" for the same purpose. Cuba had legal slavery until the 1870's and the Cuban workers from the fields were Castro's biggest supporters. Unless we plan to make semi-slaves and work them to death in the cane fields, sugar cane ethanol is a pipe dream.
Sugarland is/was the home of Imperial Sugar.
I lived near Sugarland for a couple of years (in Bay City) but I did not know that. I always wondered why they called it Sugarland.



You might want to pose that question to Milton Maciel on the Energy Resources forum.  He is the reigning organic, Brazilian sugar cane/ethanol expert there.

From what I've read of his past posts (I just lurk there), he has a wide range of excellent technical knowledge.

Brazil has one other big difference compared to us.

It's a tropical nation. Re the higher efficiency of sugarcane vs. corn for ethanol, you can grow cane all over the place in Brazil. You can't in the U.S.

You can grow sugarbeets in Illinois and Iowa, to be sure. But you're not gonna grow cane there, and I have no idea on EROEI, etc. on sugarbeets vs. either corn or sugarcane.

I have sugarcane growing in my yard.  Sugarcane is a viable crop in South Florida, South Louisiana (still grown here), South Texas & Hawaii (5 plantations left).

Sugarbeet is a less efficient producer of sugar than sugarcane.

Thanks, Alan. Simple logic then would imply sugarbeets are a less efficient producer of ethanol as well.

I do wonder whether it comes out ahead of corn or not, at least on sugar. Do you have info on that?

Nicely done, Robert. I think you should e-mail this to Dan Rather and Frank Sesno. Idiots ...

They probably got their talking points from ADM, though.

So in summary, the problem with the comparison with Brazil is many more fat Americans driving much bigger cars, much farther, much faster and much more frequently.  

Sigh...  when is America going to figure out that there is more to gain by conservation than any new oil field, new technology and any alternative source put together.  

I wonder how much energy conservation we could get by taking all the money currently spent on subsidizing ethanol and corn and investing that money in energy conservation.  My only real concern about oil peaking is that we will start using coal and its byproducts as a substitute.
I wonder how much energy conservation we could get by taking all the money currently spent on subsidizing ethanol and corn and investing that money in energy conservation.  

I have speculated on this as well. I think if you took all of these subsidies, and instead gave them to consumers for various energy conservation programs (for example, a sliding rebate depending on the fuel efficiency of the car you drive), the benefit would be enormous. We would see a dramatic drop in our oil imports.


there are MANY personal activities people could replace in their lives that have a higher EROI than 1.34:1.

biking instead of driving has huge EROI.
Vaclac Smil shows that the EROI of planting root vegetables is 20:1 to 25:1 - thats the personal energy expended to the calories harvested. Once we have a real energy crisis, people will start to view the world in an energy lens rather than a dollar lens. Its what we evolved to do.

Biking do not produce energy and has no Energy Return On Enery Invested. Please do not confuce efficiency with energy production even if efficiency is vital for competitiveness and our common future.
I disagree.

I think that we should look at the energy cost and money cost of producing more energy vs. saving energy (with some adjustsment for type of energy).

Consider some of the following alternatives.  Which should we do ?

  1. Drill a dozen wells into depleted field that will each ooze 3 barrels/day for 15 years.

  2. Build another wind turbine farm

  3. Add hydroelectric generator to existing dam that will produce power 11% of the time for 100+ years.

  4. Build new distillery & make more ethanol from corn

  5. Extend the "Red Line" subway in Los Angeles to UCLA and carry an extra 140,000 pax/day

  6. Electrify Union Pacific railroad on line from Los Angeles to Omaha.  This is 4% of total US ton-miles (SWAG).

  7. Build a coal to liquids plant and make 100,000 b/d diesel

  8. Build a new nuke

  9. Build & install 300,000 solar water heaters

I think EROEI is a valid criteria to compare these projects (as well as $ & environmental impact).  Some are clear winners, some are marginal, some are losers.  All take energy, materials and money.
The "nega-watt" argument. It can be used for arguing that a bicycle is a worthwile investment since running a bicycle cost much less energy and money per person/km then transporting oneself with a car. And that is correct.

But it is still not energy positive to bicycle in itself since it still cost a tiny ammount of wear, road space and cornflakes.

Investing in better efficiency should be compared to investing in increased production. But in reality it is very often different organizations that can do different kind of investments. They are interconnected by the ammount of capital in our economy, sometimes common owners, banks and laws and regulations but that still gives clumsy control for global optimization and I think fine tuned optimization is a futile goal.

I would like to mostly use EROEI for schemes that are supposed to produce net energy. If they do not produce a positive EROEI they are advocated with incorrect marketing. For the rest I am content with ROI including a reasonable fuel price prognosis.

But that may be since I am greedy and would like to live in a rich country both before and after peak oil. I advocate short and medium term negative EROEI infrastructure investments if they are cheap to build today and cheap to run post peak oil, otherwise some Swedish railway lines that will be nice to have will probably not be built. (If the opinion I got about that were correct, I have not calculated it myself. )

Sigh...  when is America going to figure out that there is more to gain by conservation than any new oil field, new technology and any alternative source put together.

The key to understanding this persistent blindness is to ask "more to gain for whom"?  Sure, the average joe on the street would be better off with a energy-frugal society.  He might not get to have his McTruck or McHouse, but his quality of life would be overall much improved (lower taxes, lower cost of living, lower pollution, lower threat of terrorism, etc).  But Joe American doesn't make these decisions.  He eats the dogfood he is served.  And the power elite (in both senses of the term; they are much the same group of people) stand to lose power, position, and wealth if we shift from a centralized fossil-fuel economy to a distributed, renewable, low-energy economy.

This is "the" problem that I see as well.
Nicely done, Robert. I think you should e-mail this to Dan Rather and Frank Sesno. Idiots ...

While it was clear that Rather and Sesno thought we should emulate Brazil, neither came out and bluntly stated this. They left the implication there by not asking critical questions about why Brazil was able to accomplish what they have. Far worse, in my opinion, was the Khosla/Daschle editorial. They flat out assured us that we could be energy independent if we merely go down the path that Brazil has set. That is grossly irresponsible.


   Excellent article as always.  I just returned from Brazil, and while they are frugal, I don't think the lifestyle is that different from ours.  What market forces are causing them to conserve?

The yearly wage in Brazil is $1,725

A gallon of gasoline costs $4.10

The yearly wage in the US is $10,712
A gallon of gas costs $2.80 where I am.

So a Brazilian purchasing only gas could buy around 431 gallons a year, while an american could purchase over 3,000.  If we taxed gasoline to where the market were similar gas would cost around $25 a gallon.  That would make more people walk/bike/public transport and drive less when they do drive.  I am not advocating this I am only pointing out the reason for their lower consumption.  They have less money percapita and gas costs more per unit.

I do think somewhere between where we are now and $25 a gallon we could tax fuel and

1 Electrify Rail/improve mass transit
2 Invest in Alternative Energy
3 Fund credible research programs for cellulosic/biodiesel

I had a blast in Brazil, I had to more than I do here and I bought a bike and had to wait for a bus here and there but it was not that bad.  When my fiance is in the US she complains that she does not have the freedom to go to the store or movies...everything is to far to walk and the mass transit sucks.


Medic -

Hope you got to experience Carnival.

I think it's one hell of a show.

So a Brazilian purchasing only gas could buy around 431 gallons a year, while an american could purchase over 3,000.

Interestingly, that ratio is 6.96, just a bit higher than the ratio of how much energy we actually do use compared to Brazil. I think this explains "why" they are frugal. I agree that the only way to make the U.S. frugal is by making gas more expensive - one way or another.


Does anyone know if there are quality, peer-reviewed studies of cane sugar ethanol eroei? I hear unsubstantiated numbers like 8:1 but I have yet to see a reputable source.
Newsweek has what seems like the bioenergy crop of the week - miscanthus.


The MSM is beginning to ask some of the correct questions. What advantages does this crop have over corn? What is the yield per acre? (miscanthus could yield 15-20 tons per acre, at least double the yield of switchgrass. A ton of miscanthus could produce up to 80 gallons of cellulosic ethanol).

Fertilizer requirements are relatively low.


They recognize that the crop would have to be grown relatively close (25 miles) to be profitable.

U of Illinois has over 40 researchers looking at "energy crops". Their goal seems to create a "third crop" besides corn and soy that farmers can grow.

At least researchers are beginning to think beyond corn in the crops-for-energy picture.

The second story (ORNL) that you cited is actually very balanced and gives what probably amounts to a realistic appraisal of the situation:

relatively high yields -- 3-6 t/acre dry weight - not the 10-15 t/a that you cite - yields of this magnitude will simply not occur in the real world.

Miscanthus rhizomes have a low tolerance of frost - will this plant survive in the northern productive US agriculture regions?

establishment costs appear to be fairly high at present - must be planted with potato planting equipment, and takes a long time (5 years!) to become fully established.

Average annual rainfall for the European trials range from 500-1000 mm (20-40 inches), with irrigation at the warmer, more southern latitudes - i.e., this plant will be competing with corn and soybeans for acreage.  Which would a farmer rather plant, corn/soybeans that provides income every year or micanthus that doesn't "spin up" until 5 years out?

My current view of the whole "plants for biofuel" issues (which is constantly evolving) is that corn and soybeans are going to be so valuable for biofuels as we go forward (assuming that we are approaching peak oil, of course!) that none of these alternative crops will get a fair shake, which is too bad.  The markets are already sensing the coming pressure from biofuels (Corn in Dec 08 is at the $3.25/bushel level, and soybeans at $6.70/bushel, both about $1/bushel higher than current prices), and my best guess is that these prices will continue to climb higher.  To plant these alternative crops (switchgrass, micanthus, willow, etc.), farmers would have to take the risk of not having a crop  for a year or two, which only a fool would do in an environment of high crop prices.

Regarding the December prices for corn and soybeans: There isn't a whole lot of corn or soybeans harvested in December. Infact, demand for both is high in December because that's when seed-stock is being bought for planting. Those two factors could explain the price bump for soybeans. Historically, soybeans are about $1/bushel higher in December than they are in August.

However, the spread for corn is usually only about 25 cents/bushel. That extra 75 cents is interesting.

But both the corn and soy numbers are all over the map. I wouldn't be concluding much from them at all.

I wonder what happens if you mix miscanthus/switchgrass into your pig shit bioreactor ... you'd get better compost, but the methane production curves might be interesting to see.
Does anyone know if there are quality, peer-reviewed studies of cane sugar ethanol eroei? I hear unsubstantiated numbers like 8:1 but I have yet to see a reputable source.

Likewise, I would like to see some actual plant surveys that evaluate energy inputs and outputs of Brazilian ethanol plants. I haven't seen anything like this. I do have a paper that claims 8:1, but it doesn't list energy inputs and outputs. It merely claims that Brazil is able to achieve this because they burn bagasse for steam.


I'd like to see Pimentel's methods applied to this job.

But then sugar cane/ethanol production is a completely very system. It's a perenial crop that produces sugar directly, is harvested by hand (10 workers/hectare), and is collected by machine. Hard to do that analysis from a desk.

The next time you hear someone say we should emulate Brazil's example

You can also ask them to quit their gas guzzlers and machouses, there's none of that in Brasil (at least massively). They'll understand it better.

Nice post Robert.

Brazil is not energy independent. In the beginning of this year, it was still a net importer of oil and oil products (exports: $2.5 billion, imports: $billion).

Brazil is a coal importer, too: 17,5 million short tons in 2004

And Brazil imports a lot of natural gas from Bolivia and Argentina (remember that Brazilia had a sizable stake in those Bolivian gas companies that president Morales nationalized). Over one third of the gas is imported and imports are rising:

Brazil doesn't even strive to energy independence, because it is an unattainable goal, it is mostly talking about increasing South American cooperation in gas and oil, ie. importing more from the neighbouring countries. Brazil has been building heavy, high-energy industry (eg. steel) as the basis of its industrialization policy and this cannot be done on mere sugar cane byproducts.

Brazil has an unusually high hydro share in its energy mix (35%), which is the real fundament of its energy balance. This high share is partly due to the environment (Amazonas), but also to the low level of energy use. Brazil has experienced electricity shortages due to changes in rainfall. It has still unbuilt hydro capacity. Brazil has also 2 nuclear plants, and it has now an ambitious nuclear power program with uranium enrichment facilities. This shows that Brazil is not building its energy future mainly on biofuels, but more on nuclear, hydro and imported gas.

This completes the picture Robert gives - that the ethanol has significance mostly in the context of the low per capita use of energy in Brazil. Ethanol may be about 10% of all Brazilian energy use, and considering EROEI, probably significantly less of the net energy consumption. EROEI here is a little bit difficult question because ethanol here is a  byproduct only, and part of the energy input goes to the sugar. Ethanol production cannot grow much from the present level, and so its share in the Brazilian energy mix will diminish as the overall energy consumption rises.

I thought where I lived (Tasmania) was the first place to turn to coal when hydro dropped due to drought. I found Brazil was ahead of the game. In either place the reasoning was that GW was drying up the rivers so more coal needs to be burned to make up the shortfall.  So what happens to ethanol production in a major drought or pest outbreak like cane grub? Perhaps there needs to be an SER = strategic ethanol reserve.
Typically, coal power plants are the reserve capacity everywhere. Coal is easy to store and these plants are used in times of peak demand, low water in hydro, nuclear maintenance stops etc.
Brazil is not energy independent. In the beginning of this year, it was still a net importer of oil and oil products (exports: $2.5 billion, imports: $billion).

I believe the source of the energy independence claims is the result of a new offshore platform that Petrobas recently completed, which should in theory eliminate their need for imports.

Ethanol production cannot grow much from the present level, and so its share in the Brazilian energy mix will diminish as the overall energy consumption rises.

Which is an important point, as a lot of people think we can just import the ethanol that we need from Brazil, and they can ramp up production as needed. That was exactly the thrust of Joseph Miglietta's recent pro-ethanol posts that I hosted on my blog.


Petrobras new platform is the FPSO "P50". It is massive, actually almost singlehandedly doubling Brazil's petroleum production, and now works the Albacora Leste field (Campos basin).

In Brazil, the percentage of the sugar cane crop going toward ethanol production is actually falling (relative to the percentage of the crop going towards sugar production), despite higher selling prices for the ethanol. The reason is simple: Sugar prices have gone up faster, and is generally a more lucrative commodity, at least for the more higher quality sugarcane.

What Brazil has figured out is a highly class-stratified society, which in truth we in the US are figuring out pretty quickly. But they are ahead, and in truth can say their wealthy classes are well taken care of in terms of oil and gas. There's a huge numerican majority who don't own and can't hope to own cars, but they're invisible to Brazil's owning class and to Americans, at least Americans with Internet access, which shows we're learning our lessons well.

Yes, it's great to be a Brazilian, as long as you're in the top quintile, just like in the USA. Viva, Brazil!

(I've been to Cuba, not easy for a 'murrican to say, and like all communist dictatorships, it's a great place to live as long as you're in the ruling class there  also.)

I meant "numerical" although I must nominate the term "numericans" for Amurrikans who will soon be essentially in the same position as the proles in the novel 1984. Orwell sure had their intellectual world, longetivity, etc pegged.
Not directly related to this post, but in the same region, concerned with globalisation, food and nationalisation of resources. (It cites that global food supply falling from 116 days in 2000 to a current level of 69 days.)

So food into ethanol , and biofuels adds further pressure.


Intresting article. Long but worth it.

And not something you see in the Torygraph everday.

The inputs to ethanol from sugar is primarily molasses, which is a waste product. So, this would not be true for much of tropical production.

Even if the farms were converted into pure ethanol plants, (or the ethanol canibalized a portion of sugar as in Brazil) the only loss is sugar. I don't need to read the Telegraph article to know that no one is suffering from sugar deficiencies.

It seems logically inconsistent to be concerned about the use of land for fuel, but not use of land for sugar, tobacco, and a lot of other non-nutrient producing purposes.

Its not about sugar. Its about nationalisation of resources in many resources, not just food. Its stance was not particularly pro-globalisation

Like I say, not something you normally see in the Daily Telegraph...

OK. I read the article this time.

While the overall argument is interesting and apt, I don't read it as a permanent shift in direction as much as a feature of the commodity cycle. The Mongolian issue wasn't neglected in the media, as the author claimed - there was a piece on it in the Economist this week.

Chavez's efforts to keep a higher percentage of oil profits are nothing new. Middle Eastern producers did the same thing as the balance of power between them and the oil majors shifted. Nationalization seems to take place whenever commodity prices are high. Then when the cycle turns and investment is needed the countries open back up.

Far from being unique or precedent setting, I think this is natural. Actually the US talk of a windfall tax on oil profits is about the same. So maybe the US government and Hugo Chavez have more in common then they thought.

You're not making much sense. "When the cycle turns" in your model, prices would be low. So why would producers in that situation invite foreign investment to drive up production and further depress the price?
A sizeable portion of Brazilian sugarcane-to-ethanol production and expansion is presently taking place in cropland where citrus was traditionally grown (Sao Paulo, for instance).  
First, I have enjoyed and learned from your series on ethanol and am reasonably convinced that corn is not a viable fuel source. I had been looking forward to this article as I do think sugar-based ethanol may be viable in certain environments.

In that regard, I was disappointed that you slayed the windmill of sugar-based ethanol as a "solution to all of the US's problems" when it was pretty clear it was already dead. Unfortunately, the more interesting and germane issue of whether sugar-based ethanol is a net positive got scant attention.

If, as one of the commenters points out above, Brazil gets as much as 10% of their total energy from ethanol, this could seem to make it a massive success - if it is sustainable. This is especially true given that it offsets exports, provides jobs and should provide a net environmental gain in use.

I have just started looking at a couple of sugar mills in tropical Asia that have plans to produce ethanol. It seems to make sense as the ethanol comes from a waste stream that exists in large quantities (molasses), uses farm waste as energy input (bagasse), and is viable without subsidies.

I can see no reason to believe that even large-scale ethanol production is not viable as an add on to existing sugar production and would be a far better use of the land than sugar in the event that ethanol becomes the primary product.

Does anything in your analysis refute this less ambitious claim?

Some more facts about Brazils ethanol production. Brazil produced 4 billion gallons (95 million barrels) of ethanol fuel in 2004.

This means 0.26 million barrels/day (but the calorific value of ethanol is 20% lower than that of "real" gasoline). The Brazilian oil consumption in 2004 was 2.19 million barrels/day (EIA). This makes ethanol consumption as 12% of consumption of crude oil. Considering the lower calorific value ethanol adds a 10% to the Brazilian oil consumption (note that this is total oil, not only transport fuel). The share of oil in the Brazilian energy mix was 49% in 2003. This makes the share of ethanol roughly 5% of the Brazilian energy in 2004. Ethanol production has increased in the last two years, but so has the Brazilian energy consumption - so the share is probably about the same now.

The ethanol EROEI is definitely lower than for oil and gas, which shows as a big subsidy program for the ethanol producers. So the share of ethanol in the Brazilian net energy supply is lower than 5%. This puts ethanol in perspective.

thanks for the perspective.

Good comments.  I get 0.18 million barrels of oil equivalent given a relative energy density (by volume) of ethanol to gasoline of 68%...  

Anyway, no one seems to have mentioned natural gas powered vehicles in this thread.  This has increased dramatically in Brazil to more than one million recently, up from 90,000  in 2000.  The NG consumed by cars in Brazil would be about 9 billion cubic meters per day, which is equivalent to about 60,000 barrels per day, or about 1/3 of the ethanol consumed. A small but significant contribution to Brazil's oil independence, but one that increases Brazil's NG dependence.

Just dropped that in to help complete the picture.

Gotta run my boss is coming...

I didn't mention it in this thread, but I have mentioned before that Brazil has about 10 times the NG vehicles on the road that we have in the U.S. I have argued that it makes more sense just to use the NG to direcly power vehicles, as opposed to inefficiently converting it into ethanol.


And it makes more sense to run a vehicle on NG and to generate electricity with coal than the other way around (not that I'm a fan of coal-powered electricty)
In that regard, I was disappointed that you slayed the windmill of sugar-based ethanol as a "solution to all of the US's problems" when it was pretty clear it was already dead.

Dead in this forum, yes, because the readers here are well-read on these issues. But alive and well in the media and in the minds of the public. I think this article is timely in that regard. I hear more and more politicians and reporters suggesting that we need to emulate Brazil. I wanted to provide a quick reality check for them.

Unfortunately, the more interesting and germane issue of whether sugar-based ethanol is a net positive got scant attention.

There just isn't a lot of good literature out there on that. I suspect the energy balance is significantly better than for corn, but I haven't seen a good energy survey of sugar cane ethanol plants to support this. The evidence I have seen is largely anecdotal. For example, I have seen lots of images of Brazilian workers harvesting sugar cane by hand. That will improve EROI. I have read reports that they are burning bagasse for steam. That will improve EROI. But by how much? And is the burning of bagasse the norm? I don't know. But what I do know, and is easily verifiable, is that Brazil is no model for U.S. energy independence, which is a popular claim right now.


I agree with both points. I live in Thailand where sugar mills are just starting to produce ethanol. I understand that bagasse as a fuel source is a fairly new application with much success in India. The Thai mills are using bagasse to produce power and for ethanol production, although they are still in the early stages. In this region harvest is by hand. I will follow up on this but it may take a bit of time. Thanks for the articles and getting the topic discussed.
How much of their energy, and hydrogen for fertilizer comes from Bolivian gas?  They have found recently that this source may become increasingly expensive and unpredictable.
I quickly scanned the comments and didn't see the obvious advantage that Brazil has. Cheap labor. I read a while back that most sugar cane is manually harvested. Not hard to get a good EROEI if you use human power as input.
Low cost manual labor is probably essential to making the whole thing work. The labor input is almost entirely in the farming portion and not, I understand, easy work.

However, for a large number of tropical countries, this is also an advantage as it provides rural incomes. I know India, Thailand and the Philippines all have adequate labor and the ability to produce sugar. In some cases small farmers own the land and sell to factories.

The U.S. agricultural system would certainly change the economics, and probably the EROIE.

Australian sugar cane producers in northern Australia (north Queensland mainly, but I think there is a small amount of production in the Ord River Irrigation scheme far northern Western Australia) compete on the global market without subsidies, and Australia is definitely a high-labour cost nation.

Sugar cane production is not dependent on low wages.

There was a bit on the news this morning that WalMart is going to start selling Ethanol at some of their stores...
Yep, the press in iowa is falling all over themselves about E85.

Now we have this: Demand for ethanol puts business back on tracks

Iowa's booming ethanol industry will make a record 1.3 billion gallons of fuel this year, creating a surging demand for railroad service to haul the product to gasoline markets across the country.

Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe have seen shipments soar, and they and other rail companies are scrambling to keep up with the demand. Meanwhile, ethanol plants have received $1.14 million in state aid to connect with railroads and get their product to a nation thirsty for the alternative fuel.

What is wrong with CBS?  They really don't seem to have a clue on oil issues.  On last night's Evening News, it was reported that Hugo Chavez' "anti-US rhetoric has contributed to the run-up in oil prices".  While I'm no pro, I do pay attention to crude futures.  Did I miss something here?  And what would be the mechanism where criticism of backing a coup attempt gets translated into oil prices?

The story also said that Chavez is pushing OPEC to cut production to drive prices beyond $70, while later in the story it said will ask that a price of $50 should be OPEC's floor.  Are production cuts being considered? or only if the price drops?  (And hadn't the Saudi's already mentioned a $50 floor?)

I think OPEC's new floor is $60.
I've seen stories that the "floor" is a band of $50-60.
You're probably right.
yeah, but
OPEC crude is not nymex, the sweet/light quoted every day. OPEC basket sells for at least 10% less, so a 60 floor would mean 66-70 nymex.
CBS is owned by Viacom.  As with virtually all of the major media in this country, their prime directive is entertainment.  They are really only interested in selling any and everything they can, both to profit their own business and to benefit their advertisers, which in turn, of course, benefits their own bottom line.  Hard nosed investigative journalism doesn't generate big bucks.  Beyond the entertainment focus, the MSM is strongly held and therefore influenced by utilities and the hardware of empire -http://www.thenation.com/special/bigten.html Together with the influence that money & media have on public policy and opinion, Westexas' "Iron Triangle" is a formidable entity.
How embarrassing... went to the CIA Factbook to find how much oil per capita Canada uses.

With consumption at 2.3 million barrels/day (2004 est) ... and a population of over 33 million (2006 est).

We consume over 25 barrels of oil per year per capita.

I'd love to know the breakdown of that... between heavy (primary) industry, light industry (manufacturing), other commercial industries (shipping), business and consumer.

Canada only barely produces more oil than we consume... 2.4mbbd vs. 2.3mbbd ... I wouldn't be surprised if, soon, the scale tips.

But aren't you going to SAVE US with massive quantities of TAR ?

(I do realize that you will need to stop exporting that natural gas down south in order to get the tar out of the sands and then upgrade it.  But we can always put on a sweater during the winter).

PS: In last few years Canadian tar sands production increases have been less than convential oil declines.  Add increasing Canadian consumption and ...

And here's a look at what tar sands production is doing up in Canada: ('http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/30/AR2006053001429.html');
Your link had an extra ' at the end that caused it not to open. If someone clicks on it, they need to erase that extra character. I have fixed it here:

Canada Pays Environmentally for U.S. Oil Thirst

It is a very good article, and I highly recommend it for those who want to understand what's going on in the tar sands fields.


This is a problem in all the industrialized nations. Europe and Japan are slightly better but still very high consumers compared to places like Brazil, and as Robert demonstrates, even Brazil is barely able to achieve energy independence this way. This is precisely why, in the long term, we either have to come up with some huge new energy source (more fission reactors, much much more solar/wind, a fusion reactor breakthrough, etc.) or we absolutely will be forced to "power down" to a lower level of energy consumption. Those are our choices - find more energy or use less energy.

Personally, I feel that the right solution is some marriage of all of these. I think we can have a very bright (pun intended) future if we focus on all the sustainable energy technologies we have while at the same time we actually start powering down to some degree. The first place to start is in conservation. If the US could cut energy consumption by 25% over the next decade, that alone might be enough to help us ease the transition to more sustainable energy sources.

But it will also require a culture shift, away from the suburban sprawl mindset we've developed in such a sloppy manner to a more disciplined and planned approach to building communities so as to maximize return on energy invested. Right now we falsely place financial return on investment as a higher priority but there appears to be a wide disconnect between financial efficiency and energy efficiency. And ultimately, physics will trump finances so it's in our own best interests to place energy efficiency higher than on the totem pole than financial efficiency.

Unfortunately, I do not expect the talking heads that sit atop the totem pole to really understand this and thus I do not expect rational action until after the situation reaches crisis proportions.

Secondary energy use in Canada (2002) was 8217 petajoules. Secondary energy use is end-use.  
   Industrial 39%
   Residential 17%
   Passenger transportation 15%
   Commercial/institutional 14%
   Freight transportation 11%
   Agriculture 2.5%
   Off-road 1.1%

The energy sources were:
   Natural gas 26%
   Electricity 22%
   Gasoline 17%
   Diesel, kerosene & fuel oil 16%
   Industrial wood and pulping waste 5.6%
   Still gas & petroleum coke 5.4%
   Aviation fuel 2.7%
   LPG 1.3%
   Residential wood 1.3%
   Other 2.6%

The data source is a spreadsheet from the Office of Energy Efficiency, Natural Resources Canada.

So, you guys are as bad as us! Misery loves company...
Maybe the appropriate question when someone says we should emulate Brazil is not to ask how we can produce that much ethanol but rather what energy use cuts the person recommends to get us to Brazil-equivalent levels.  By the way, your analysis is great in providing relevant numbers to explain how Brazil achieved this "miracle".
By the way, your analysis is great in providing relevant numbers to explain how Brazil achieved this "miracle".

And that was really what I was trying to achieve. While my E85 post last week went into quite a bit more depth, a lot of people aren't "numbers" people. I think most of the people hyping the Brazilian model are not numbers people, else they would know better. So, I went for something a bit simpler, and easier to convey in this case.

I was a bit shocked at the huge discrepancy of the U.S. oil production/consumption gap, compared to Brazil's. That, in a nutshell, explains why they could achieve energy independence.


rwmcalister -

Not much mystery here.

If the US could 'achieve' a general  poverty level equivalent to that of Brazil, it would do wonders to lower our per capita oil consumption.  If you can't afford a car, you don't use much oil.

However, Brazil has much of the infrastructure in place (housing & shopping patterns, bus transit) to allow the poor to live without severe transportation issues.

Brazil is far from perfect, but the US is much worse for the mobility impaired poor (or others simply too old to drive, etc.)

Australia (Melbourne at least) seems to have a different problem.  The rich & middle class live near excellent mass transit and use it (not exclusively) whilst the poor are isolated from mass transit.


Just a thought, if the lion's share of corn and/or cane sugar was used to create fuel alternatives this would directly affect the production of large corporations that rely on the availability of either/both to continue to function. A company  like a large softdrink manufacturer.

I imagine these corporations would fight like mad to stay in business.

Thanks RR, all contributors, and TOD readers....

Supply side solutions dominate conversations everywhere.  Drill ANWR, the East Coast, theWest Coast, produce ethanol from corn, from sugar cane, from bacteria, from yeast, produce biodiesel from rapeseed, from corn, from waste, and on and on.  A lot of this is just so much nonsense!  Without a strong concomitant program in efficiency, none of the above matters or is worth the time to develop.  We consume some 21 mbd of oil and talk as if we're starving for oil.  We squander what we have!!  So, it doesn't matter how much, or how many kinds of fuel we produce if our net ingenuity fails to exceed our lowest expectations.  Why dismantle existing infrastructure for yet another wasteful system, when we could easily put the existing one a tough-love diet and create some demand destruction in the meantime?  The answer for us, in the US, is not with supply, but with demand.  Sure nobody likes a diet but do we wait until we're morbidly obese?

I think we've answered that question....where's the buffet?
Tate423...you made me laugh!!  "Pass the dessert tray, please"
Absolutely right one the mark RR. I love the stat that we could use 3x oil of Brazil and still be energy independent. It's is all about demand reduction.
Unless I missed it, I didn't see any mention of sugar beets - only cane.  Unlike the latter, beets are grown in more northern latitudes, and are more drouth resistant than either cane or corn.  Beets should rank closer to cane than corn for alcohol output, presumably with a better EROEI.  Can a plant designed to process corn use or be converted to sugar beets?
How many different sources can be made into Ethanol?
Wow, just as many gallons of oil are in a barrel!!!
I was actually making a Hitchhikers Guide joke....but an odd coincidence
The Journey to Forever site lists ethanol yields for 30 crops with jerusalem artichokes the highest at 1200 gal/acre while corn is 214 gal/acre.
Great post, lots of very good articles referenced here.  Thanks all!  I've been laughing all along at the concept that we should just "do it like Brazil".  Americans are so clueless...
The problem I see with actually conserving energy in this country (US) is that it would ring alarm bells that the end of economic growth is approaching, and that would spook investment.  It's vital to the markets to keep as many of the small investors in the game for as long as possible.  The average guys, and gals, were suckered into investing in corporate America in the 90's, and the power elites clearly plan on keeping that going until we hit the wall.  Then they take "our money" and leave us holding the car and home mortgages with no gasoline, electricity, or heat.  
I'm new to the group and perhaps missed it, but apparently no one has mentioned the PRIMARY reason Brazil will become selfsufficient on oil this year - they developed their Offshore oil resources. Yes, Brazil has reduced vehicle fuel demand by +/- 45% by developing ethanol, but the primary factor in reducing oil imports lies with their multi-decade committment to exploring for domestic oil. Thirty years ago Brazil produced less than 200,000 Barrels of oil/day from primarily onshore fields. After exploring their deepwater areas (greater than 1400' of water), they started developing new oil discoveries. This year Brazil's domestic oil production will be over 1.9 million barrels/day - more than domestic consumption.

Yes, we can learn from Brazil's experience with ethanol. But we could also learn from their committed development of their own oil resources. The US currently excludes over 85% of its continental shelves to oil and gas exploration.

I've been in the petroleum exploration business for over 35 years and it's my opinion that we will need ALL sources of energy to maintain our standard of living.

As noted earlier, if the US reduced our oil consumption per capita to that of Brazil, we could join OPEC ! IMO. we should hold ANWR, any new oil exploration of Louisiana (as Blanco has promised to try and slow down or stop). offshore CA or FL, MA UNTIL we are well past peak. That will be our reserve to preserve some sort of economy on the downslope of Peak Oil. "Preserve our standard of Living" ? If you mean suburban sprawl, SUVs and all of that, NO HOPE ! From a personal perspective, good riddance as well. If you are new perhaps you have missed my two policy papers. http://www.lightrailnow.org/features/f_lrt_2006-05a.htm http://www.lightrailnow.org/features/f_lrt_2005-02.htm
As noted earlier, if the US reduced our oil consumption per capita to that of Brazil, we could join OPEC !

IMO. we should hold ANWR, any new oil exploration of Louisiana (as Blanco has promised to try and slow down or stop). offshore CA or FL, MA UNTIL we are well past peak. That will be our reserve to preserve some sort of economy on the downslope of Peak Oil.

"Preserve our standard of Living" ?

If you mean suburban sprawl, SUVs and all of that, NO HOPE !

From a personal perspective, good riddance as well.

If you are new perhaps you have missed my two policy papers.



Contrary to recent media reports, Brazil and Petrobras drilled their way to energy independence by spending more recently on E&P than anyone else. (See PFC Energy Report PowerPoint). Ethanol is a payout to the corn belt for their November support. At best, it is a good environmental substitute for MTBE. At worst, it gives headline readers a false sense of energy/environmental security. This keeps us buying the large, inefficient, high-margin vehicles which drive up the cost of oil. This is a death spiral for the GM. They are selling 'Green' Avalanches and calling it Yellow. Don't blame ExxonMobil, blame your 5.6 litre V-8.



It would be better to say they are liquid fuel independent than energy dependent on account of the ng and coal they import. And, their liquid fuel independence is for more because of their oil production than their ethanol production. As others have noted, ethanol might be justified only to the minimum extent it is needed for mtbe substitution.
From what I have read, Brazil's sugarcane ethanol is economic - even with lower mileage/gallon. However, sugarcane derived ethanol in the US would likely require heavy subsidies from the government. Right now, the only reason we have sugarcane grown in the US is due to price supports. If allowed through free markets, Brazil's sugar would totally undermine the US production. I assume the same would happen with ethanol.