One often hears that Brazil is the model for biofuels usage: They’ve come close to achieving energy independence by creating ethanol with sugar cane. As Tom Daschle and Vinod Khosla said in their recent NYT op-ed, "Brazil has it figured out; why can’t we?“
Rapier explains exactly why:
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.