Alcohol can lead to all kinds of unintended consequences, but who knew it could lead to energy independence? Apparently, the Brazilians did. Processing sugar cane into ethanol is expected to help Brazil meet its rising energy demands in a big way. According to an article in the New York Times, officials expect that within a year the country will become fully energy self-sufficient—thanks largely to putting sugar in gas tanks.

Brazil’s story is encouraging, but it’s hard to know precisely what conclusions to draw for North Americans.

We can’t buy Brazil’s success by importing cane-based ethanol because our current policy regime all but disallows it. The US (and Europe too) slaps stiff duties on sugar imports—to the tune of 54 cents a gallon on cane-based ethanol imports, enough to render Brazilian ethanol at a competitive disadvantage.

We can’t copy Brazil’s success because our colder latitudes don’t support sugar cane. Even Florida is considered only marginally productive for sugar cane and it comes at a horrific cost to ecological treasures like the Everglades. Hawaii produces sugar too, but its land base is far too small to meet American demand.

We can’t imitate Brazil’s success with northern crops like corn because producing corn-based ethanol is far too energy intensive.

  • Under the best conditions, corn ethanol yields only about 1.3 times as much energy as is required to produce it. Brazilian sugar cane, on the other hand, can yield 8 times as much energy; and producers think that efficiency can go to 10 times.

    And even if we did somehow have access to Brazil’s ethanol, our vehicle fleet couldn’t take full advantage of it. But Brazil’s can: more than 70 percent of cars sold in Brazil are “flex fuel” allowing drivers to alternative between ethanol or petroleum as price (or conscience) directs. Even better for Brazilian drivers, the flex fuel engines don’t cost any more than conventional motors.

    Sugar cane production is proving to be a boon to Brazil’s economy, not to mention to its ecological footprint. (Nowadays, even the cane waste products are getting recycled back into various manufacturing processes.) But cane is not a free ride either: it’s often grown on former pasture land and many fear that this will push livestock owners to clear more Amazon rainforest to make room. And cane growers are now pushing for genetically modified versions that will boost energy output and also resist disease and droughts. But GMO sugar cane may pose other unforeseen ecological problems down the road.

    For me, the lesson from Brazil is two-fold. First, solving our biggest environmental problems (e.g. fossil fuel addiction and climate change) often forces us into other environmental compromises like deforestation and genetic crop modification. It’s frustrating, of course, but real world dilemmas like energy consumption rarely offer no-downside solutions.

    Second, there is not going to be any one-size-fits-all solution to the world’s energy demands. Brazil can use sugar cane, but North Americans will have to figure out something else—something homegrown if independence is important. Conservation surely must be part of our effort to ratchet down reliance on oil, but we also must find local technologies and local resources for our energy needs.