Brazil has spearheaded some of the paradigm shifts in the field of biofuels, especially bioethanol, way before they became an urgent necessity because of climate change. Biofuels have been a part of Brazil’s National Energy policies for nearly half a century. As a result, the country’s experience of creating an ethanol economy has the potential to support others in developing their strategies and selecting the best pathways to be adopted for successfully integrating ethanol into the fuel economy.
Biofuel production on a significant scale in Brazil started in 1975 as a response to the first oil shock, when the Brazilian Government decided to launch the “Proálcool” (Pro-alcohol) programme in order to foster the development of an indigenous ethanol-based transport industry that would mitigate the country’s dependence on fossil fuels, generate jobs and foster the development of technology. In 1975, Brazil still imported 70 per cent of its petroleum consumption.
The incremental regulation for ethanol blending in petrol, which currently stands at a 27 per cent mandate, paved the way for increased consumer uptake and inclination for the fuel. Since 1975, the ethanol production in Brazil has grown 45 times on the back of extensive research made by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) to improve sugarcane’s productivity, while the price has come down to 70 per cent.
Brazil also has the world’s largest transport matrix decarbonisation programme, RenovaBio, in force since 2019 and expected to further increase the ethanol supply by 45 per cent until 2030, reaching an output of 50 billion litres. Today, as ethanol is transforming the future of fuel, Brazilian company Raízen is already supplying second-generation ethanol to Ferrari Formula 1 team from this year (10 per cent blending) and Embraer is developing ethanol blending for providing a sustainable aviation fuel.
The ethanol economy received a renewed push by the affordable and simple technological novelty of the “flex engine” disseminated in Brazil after 2003, which allows the same vehicle to be powered by 100 per cent ethanol or petrol, or any intermediary mix of the two. Brazil is one of the largest producer of cars. With nearly two decades of flex-fuel automobiles’ experience, 93 per cent of cars in Brazil today come with a flex-fuel engine. Imported cars are adapted to run on E27 blend with minor engine modifications at prices as low as $50.
Along with foreign exchange savings to the tune of $261 billion, Brazil’s ethanol programme has also avoided more than 1.34 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions, leading to a 50 per cent reduction in air pollution and improved public health in major cities like São Paulo (which had an average of 14.2 µg/m³ of in 2021).
While the benefits of using ethanol in the transportation fuel matrix are manifolds, the production of ethanol also provides a low cost and low technology pathway to sustainable development for developing countries, through the simultaneous production of bioelectricity, biogas, biomethane, and bio-fertilisers, from what is essentially considered as agricultural “waste” to produce ethanol.
Sugarcane bioelectricity supplied to the national electricity grid in Brazil in 2020 represented more than 5 per cent of the country’s power consumption, enough to serve more than 10 million homes per year. Similarly, bioethanol can also provide a cleaner cooking fuel alternative in rural areas.
Electrification of vehicles
In an effort to green the transportation sector, there is an increasing trend towards electrification of vehicles, which is often misleadingly synonymised with one of its options — battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs). However, ethanol is a meaningful solution for electric vehicles too.
Solid Oxide Fuel Cell technology — which converts ethanol into electricity to power vehicles — has proven to be far more energy efficient and environment-friendly than Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs). Sugarcane ethanol has higher energy density than batteries, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are significantly less considering the whole energy cycle (‘well-to-wheel’).
For instance, in Brazil, the current flex internal combustion engines using ethanol are emitting 58 grams of CO2 per kilometre. BEVs using electricity, which is 83 per cent renewable in Brazil, are emitting 65 grams. In comparison, the hybrid EVs using ethanol, which are already in the Brazilian market, emit 29 grams of CO2 per km.
Unfortunately, some misinformation has been raised by those located in regions that cannot benefit from a tropical agriculture, who invested heavily in high-tech solutions even if they reduce emissions less than ethanol does. In this sense, the myth that using feedstock for biofuels production undermines food security has been an important deterrent to the large-scale adoption of ethanol.
However, as the Brazilian experience has shown, sugarcane ethanol has, in fact, been able to reduce land competition between food and fuel with improved crop yields and expansion of production on degraded pastures. According to a (WWF) study, biofuels can meet 72 per cent of Brazil’s fuel demand by 2030 just by optimising the current degraded pastures.
Since blending petrol with sugarcane ethanol can lower GHG emissions up to 90 per cent and sugarcane only needs to be replanted every five to six years (thus, capturing larger amounts of carbon than any other feedstock crop), the high-octane ethanol fuel can play a pivotal role in fighting climate change — the real threat to food security.
Brazil and India are two major developing economies where agriculture forms the backbone of their respective economies. Being tropical countries, the two largest producers of sugarcane in the world are, therefore, well poised to spearhead together ethanol as a global commodity and pave the way for a new international market that favours developing countries in the first place.
India has already advanced its target of 20 per cent blending of ethanol in petrol (E20) by five years to 2025 and the adoption of flex-fuel automobiles will certainly be a game changer.
Recognising the scope of bilateral cooperation in this domain, Brazil and India signed three MoUs in the field of bioenergy cooperation when our leaders met in New Delhi in January 2020. The first meeting of our joint working group on bioenergy was held in 2021.
To spur constant cross-learning on the production, regulatory and technological aspects of ethanol supply chains, several bilateral initiatives have been organised by Brazilian and Indian institutions from the government and the private sector.
Energy transition through biofuels is a great opportunity to create and modernise industries, boost technological innovation, attract investment and generate high quality jobs — all the while contributing to sustainable development and to the quality of life of future generations around the world.
The writer is Brazilian Ambassador