If the race to break free of oil dependence was an Olympic event, Brazil would leave the United States in the dust. The U.S. imports 58% of its oil from other countries. Want to know how much oil Brazil imports yearly? Zero. That’s right, while Brazil imported 80% of its oil in the 1970s, today that figure is zero. And it’s not because they’re pumping more of their own oil out of the ground. It’s because of ethanol.
Brazil is a world leader in alternative fuel use, boasting that all of its light vehicles run either on a mix of gas and ethanol (flex-fuel), or ethanol alone. Ethanol made from sugar cane has roughly 90% less carbon emissions than gasoline.
Brazil set out on the road to oil independence forty years ago, when gas prices were sky high and drivers the world over were struggling to keep their gas tanks full. That’s when they started making ethanol out of the sugar cane that grows abundantly in the sun-rich country.
But it wasn’t enough to just make tons of ethanol out of sugar cane. The government of Brazil spent billions to develop an infrastructure to support the fuel, including building pipelines, building factories and providing tax incentives. Today the country has the most efficient ethanol production facilities in the world. It helps that ethanol made from sugar cane is much more energy efficient than corn-based ethanol. In fact, because growing and distilling ethanol from corn requires more land and fossil fuel than sugar cane, environmentalists argue that it actually does more harm to the environment than good. Scientific studies show that the corn-based version made in the U.S. produces just a little more energy than it spends to produce, while ethanol from sugar cane produces eight times as much energy than is required to make it.
Consumers in the U.S. will soon have an opportunity to experience the benefits of sugar-based ethanol. Tax breaks for the production of corn ethanol in the U.S. have recently expired, which will make it cheaper to import from Brazil.