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By Robert Rapier on Jun 1, 2006 with no responses

Lessons from Brazil


What if I told you that the key to U.S. energy independence is for each person to use 3 times the energy of the average Brazilian? Don’t believe me? See why in the following essay, also posted to The Oil Drum.

“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. (See Note below the essay).

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.

Note: As some pointed out in the comments, this analysis overlooked the contribution the ethanol is making toward closing that gap. Some asserted that if not for ethanol, Brazil’s per capita oil consumption would be “much higher” than the 4.2 bbl/person that I quoted. Some even suggested that it would be twice as high. Not true. Here are the calculations that I did below in the comments:

Yes, in fact the gap would be larger if not for ethanol. But not by much. With production of 4 billion gallons per year, a population of 190 million people, and with ethanol having an energy content only 67% of gasoline’s, that amounts to 0.3 bbl/year/person. So, if ethanol was not in the picture, there would be a supply/demand gap of 1.15 bbl/yr/person for 2004.

But, we also have to do the same exercise for the U.S. We make and use about the same amount of ethanol. So, ethanol is filling a gap for us as well. But, since our population is higher, the gap is 0.2 bbl/yr/person. So, the overall net is an increase in Brazil’s gap by 0.3 and an increase in the U.S. gap by 0.2 – to 16.2 bbl/yr/person. We now have a gap in the U.S. that is 16.2/1.15, or 14 times greater than Brazil’s (not 19).

So, it doesn’t make too much difference.