June 26, 2008

But Please!—Flex-Fuel Through the Transition, If You Don't Mind.

We've got a lot of competing fuels out there, and the more choices the consumer has, the better. Via one of my favorite roundups on biofuel research, National Geographic's cover feature from October of last year, Brazil's experience provides an instructive example:

It's easy to lose faith in biofuels if corn ethanol is all you know. A more encouraging picture unfolds some 5,500 miles southeast of Mead, where the millions of drivers of São Paulo, Brazil, spend hours a day jammed to a standstill in eight lanes of traffic, their engines, if not their tempers, idling happily on álcool from Brazil's sprawling sugar belt. The country had been burning some ethanol in its vehicles since the 1920s, but by the 1970s it was importing 75 percent of its oil. When the OPEC oil embargo crippled the nation's economy, Brazil's dictator at the time—Gen. Ernesto Geisel—decided to kick the country's oil habit. The general heavily subsidized and financed new ethanol plants, directed the state-owned oil company, Petrobras, to install ethanol tanks and pumps around the country, and offered tax incentives to Brazilian carmakers to crank out cars designed to burn straight ethanol. By the mid-1980s, nearly all the cars sold in Brazil ran exclusively on álcool.

Formula One-loving Brazilian drivers embraced the cars, especially since pure ethanol has an octane rating of around 113. It burns best at much higher compression than gasoline, allowing alcohol engines to crank out more power. Best of all, the government subsidies made it significantly cheaper. Not that ethanol didn't hit a few bumps in the road. By the early 1990s, low oil prices led the government to phase out the subsidies, and high sugar prices left the sugar mills, or usinas, with no incentive to produce the fuel. Millions of alcohol car drivers like Roger Guilherme, now a supervising engineer at Volkswagen-Brazil, were left high and dry.

"Guys like me had to wait in long lines two hours or more to fuel up," Guilherme says in his office at the massive Volkswagen plant in São Bernardo do Campo. "Consumers lost confidence in the alcohol program." A decade later when oil prices started to rise, Brazilians wanted to burn alcohol again, but given their past experience, they didn't want to be wedded to it. So Guilherme's bosses gave him a challenge: Find an inexpensive way for one car to burn both fuels. Guilherme's team worked with engineers at Magneti Marelli, which supplies fuel systems to Volkswagen, to write new software for the engine's electronic control unit that could automatically adjust the air-fuel ratio and spark advance for any mixture of gasoline and alcohol. Volkswagen introduced Brazil's first TotalFlex vehicle in 2003, modifying a small soccer ball of a commuter car called the Gol, which means—you guessed it—"goal!" It was an instant hit, and soon every other carmaker in Brazil followed suit.

Today, nearly 85 percent of cars sold in Brazil are flex: small, sporty designs that zip around the lumbering, diesel-belching trucks in São Paulo. You can even get a flex Transporter—the beloved loaf-shaped VW van, still made here. With a liter of alcohol running an average of one Brazilian real cheaper than gasoline at the pump, most flex cars haven't burned gas in years. Sugarcane, not engine technology, is the real key to Brazil's ethanol boom. The sweet, fast-growing tropical grass has been a staple export for the country since the 1500s. Unlike corn, in which the starch in the kernel has to be broken down into sugars with expensive enzymes before it can be fermented, the entire sugarcane stalk is already 20 percent sugar—and it starts to ferment almost as soon as it's cut. Cane yields 600 to 800 gallons (2,300 to 3,000 liters) of ethanol an acre, more than twice as much as corn.

Flexibility, as much as keeping supply somewhere in the neighborhood of demand, is not just a good idea: given how closely linked our energy challenges are to our national security challenges, it is our duty to demand not just

(1) hybrid vehicles;

(2) improved use of electricity for our vehicles [better batteries, more use of plug-in cars];

(3) enhanced use of natural gas for transportation;

(4) building of state-of-the-art, environmentally sensitive, clean-burning nuclear power plants so we can get the electricity to use for our electric and hybrid-electric cars (whether they are Priuses or Volts or something even better);

(5) enhanced harvesting of domestic petroleum (primarily in ANWR, since we have the technology to do that right now in an efficient, environmentally responsible fashion), but also on the Continental Shelf, and in Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah;

(6) increased use of shale oil—and a repeal of the prohibition on its use for military applications;

(7) a fair, flat playing field among the various biofuels we're researching;

(8) flex-fuel vehicles that will take either petroleum products or biofuels, and insulate the economy from market shocks as supplies of different types of fuels wax and wane; and

(9) Get rid of the tariff on imported ethanol.

It's time to roll up our sleeves, here.

UPDATE: Darth Aggie had to remind me of item #9. Added!

Posted by Attila Girl at June 26, 2008 01:53 PM | TrackBack

You forgot the most important component of a workable energy plan: Legislatures, regulators , and courts that don't take dictation from the environmental movement.

Posted by: John at June 26, 2008 02:20 PM

Sugarcane ethanol is much more logical than corn ethanol, and Brazil has done a good job with it (although in reality, most of Brazil's motor fuel still comes from oil.)

But the problem with have in the US is that sugarcane doesn't grow in as many congressional districts as does corn...

Posted by: david foster at June 26, 2008 02:28 PM

I almost feel that you two are suggesting that some legislators put their own political interests ahead of the nation's welfare.

I'm wounded by that suggestion. Taken aback, and rather torn up.

I may need to be alone for a while.

Posted by: Attila Girl at June 26, 2008 02:38 PM

How about getting rid of the tarrif on imported ethanol...

Posted by: I R A Darth Aggie at June 27, 2008 07:14 AM

Yup; that one's important, too. How many different ways can our legislators get their heads up their asses?

Posted by: Attila Girl at June 27, 2008 08:05 AM

Maybe people oughtta go back to making some moonshine, eh? :)

Posted by: Gregory at June 29, 2008 07:29 PM

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