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By Robert Rapier on Apr 26, 2009 with no responses

More Brazilian Ethanol Whoppers

I have written previously about Brazil’s “ethanol miracle,” and the tendency of the media and various advocates to ignore facts and embrace hype:

Lessons from Brazil

Vinod Khosla Debunked

There are two take home messages from those essays. First, ethanol provides a small fraction of Brazil’s transportation fuel, not 40% as is often reported. Second, the gap between supply and demand is gaping in the U.S., but very small in Brazil. Hence, ethanol is able to play a larger role in Brazil simply because Brazilians don’t use nearly as much energy as does the average American.

But it is coming up on 3 years since I updated the numbers, and I have been asked how the numbers in Brazil stack up now. In fact, several people have pointed to the claims in the following recently-published report, now picked up and repeated without anyone bothering to do any critical examination of the numbers:

Clean Energy Trends 2009

In 2008 the global biofuels market consisted of more than 17 billion gallons of ethanol and 2.5 billion gallons of biodiesel production worldwide. For the first time, ethanol leader Brazil got more than 50 percent of its total national automobile transportation fuels from bioethanol, eclipsing petroleum use for the first time in any major market.

Big statement. Ethanol reportedly eclipsed “petroleum use for the first time in any major market.” The only problem is that it isn’t true. In fact, the full report itself has a little disclaimer that immediately falsifies the above claim: “(not including diesel)”. And there’s the rub. Diesel is certainly “petroleum”, and it amounts to over 50% of the transportation fuel in Brazil. The other thing is that Brazil is not the “ethanol leader.” The U.S. already produces substantially more ethanol than does Brazil, so Brazil may be “an ethanol leader”, but bear in mind as you read this story that the U.S. already produces about 50% more ethanol than does Brazil. (Brazil is #2).

I suspect if one is fluent in Portuguese, they can go and dig up all of this information for themselves at the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy (Ministério de Minas e Energia). Alas, I am not and must therefore try to dig up the information as I can find it in English.

My starting point is this 2006 presentation that the Ministry of Mines and Energy delivered. At that time, the breakdown of vehicle fuels in Brazil (by volume) was 53.9% diesel, 26.2% gasoline, 17% ethanol (which works out to be 10% by energy content) and 2.9% natural gas. The diesel number is unlikely to have changed much, but I will try to update.

According to History and policy of biodiesel in Brazil, diesel consumption in Brazil is approximately 40 billion liters per year. Per this story (in Portuguese), diesel consumption grew by 11.5% in 2007, while gasoline grew by 2.9% and ethanol grew by 56%. This report states that in the first half of 2008, ethanol and gasoline sales were neck and neck: 2.4 billion gallons of gasoline and 2.38 billion gallons of ethanol (but that ethanol volumes had passed gasoline in specific months).

Two things are often not made explicit when these numbers are reported. First, a large fraction of the ethanol in Brazil is hydrated, meaning it contains 5% water. So 100 liters of hydrated ethanol contains 95 liters of ethanol. Second, due to the energy difference, the comparison above of 2.4 billion gallons of gasoline and 2.38 gallons of ethanol is not comparing apples to apples.

But if we throw together the numbers we have (and ignore the lower energy content for ethanol), we find that in the first half of 2008 we had 2.4 billion gallons of gasoline and 2.4 billion gallons of ethanol, plus 5.3 billion gallons of diesel (40 billion liters per year converted to gallons in 6 months). Natural gas also accounts for several hundred million gallons. Just accounting for volumes of ethanol, gasoline, and diesel, we find that ethanol is contributing 2.4/(2.4+2.4+5.3) = 23.8% by volume, which is a far cry from the claim that it has eclipsed petroleum use. Correct for the lower energy density (diesel is 130,000 btu/gal, gasoline 115,000, and ethanol 76,000) and you find that ethanol is contributing 16% of the transportation energy. Also note that we haven’t considered the fact that a good portion of the ethanol has water in it, nor that natural gas is also in the transportation mix (both of which will drop the ethanol contribution to under 15%).

None of this is written to demean the contribution ethanol has made in Brazil. I think ethanol can be an important, (even) sustainable solution for many tropical countries, and I like the sugarcane ethanol model. Where we get into trouble is trying to extrapolate that to the rest of the world. By grossly stretching the truth and suggesting that ethanol has now surpassed petroleum usage in Brazil, we set up false expectations. People hear these things, and then wrongly think that 1). Brazil used ethanol to become energy independent; 2). We in the U.S. can follow their example. It just isn’t so.

As I have said before, if we want to emulate Brazil, we need to cut our oil consumption by 75%. There is simply no way we can emulate their ethanol model without making huge changes in the amount of energy we use.