The Washington Post today has an article on Brazil’s
milestone achievement: this year, their oil exports will
equal or exceed their imports. This is significant for a few
reasons. For one, it shows that it can be done, at least in
one sizable country. Although the fact that they were able to
do it does not prove that we could do it too, it does indicate that we
could be doing a lot better than we are. It also shows that a
country does not have to be an academic or technological powerhouse to
In saying that, I do not mean to disparage the impressiveness of their
technological accomplishment. Over the course of the project,
they cut the cost of ethanol production by two-thirds, from 60 cents
per liter, to 20. They no longer rely on agricultural
subsidies. That is impressive. They did it by
establishing a technological institute that funds about 300 scientists.
So it is big, but such institutions are commonplace in the
Given that many of the challenges are political, not technological, one
may wonder how Brazil did it. They did it with a method that
is not yet commonplace in the USA, although it is a method that is
gaining in popularity here. They made many of the political
changes under the control of a military dictatorship.
Brazil’s military dictatorship launched the national
ethanol program in 1975, when about 90 percent of its fuel consumption
depended on foreign oil. The government offered subsidies to sugar cane
growers and forced service stations in every town of at least 1,500
people to install ethanol pumps. By the early 1980s, almost all new
cars sold in Brazil ran on 100 percent ethanol.
One other reason that the Brazil accomplishment is important, is that
it casts doubt on the arguments of ethanol skeptics.
One of the major arguments used against ethanol is that it would not
be possible for us to grow enough ethanol to replace the oil
that is used for transportation. That happens to be true, but
it also happens to be irrelevant. In point of fact, it is not
desirable to replace one monolithic energy source with another.
What is desirable, it to find many alternative energy
sources, each one of which fills a particular role, or contributes to
the aggregate energy need.
Of course, having just one source fits in with the agenda of heavy
industry, because it is much easier to control and thus to manipulate
prices, if there is only one primary energy source. But
having a widely diversified energy portfolio is advantageous for the
country as a whole.
against the use of ethanol for fuel is that some persons have
that indicate that the amount of energy required to produce ethanol is
as great as the amount of energy the ethanol provides. If that
is true, however, it would be difficult to explain how Brazil managed
to use ethanol to eliminate dependence on foreign oil.
Granted, one would need to have more information about the
specifics of the energy economy in Brazil in order to use this as proof
of a net energy gain, but it is strongly suggestive.