• Sep 18, 2006
After a visit to Brazil, the world's only major ethanol exporter, Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote a piece published in Friday's New York Times (Times Select subscription required) fully endorsing ethanol as a renewable alternative to gasoline.
I usually hold Mr. Friedman's work in the highest regard, however, his relentless support for increased ethanol production and the further development of flex-fuel cars in the States seems somewhat careless. He says he traveled to Brazil "to better grasp what is real and what is not in the ethanol story," yet he doesn't provide a single remark about the downside of ethanol except for the well-known fact that it contains less energy than gasoline and quickly dismisses it noting that with a calculator one can make sure he/she is still paying less for their fuel as ethanol's going rate in Sao Paulo is about $2 per gallon compared to $4 per gallon for gasoline.

Mr. Friedman goes on to say that "not only is ethanol for real, but we have not even begun to tap its full potential." He points to the words of Plinio Mario Nastari, one of Brazil's top ethanol consultants, who says that each stalk of sugar cane contains 3 energy sources:
  1. The ethanol extracted from the cane.
  2. The cane waste, bagasse, which is used to heat steam boilers that produce more than enough electricity to power the refining process. He adds that if refiners converted to new high-pressure boilers they could yield 3 times the amount of electricity.
  3. The potential cellulosic ethanol derived from leaves which are currently just left in the fields, though, he concedes that this is a technology about 5 years away.
It seems as though Mr. Friedman fails to notice that his primary source of information in this specific case is highly biased. What about the energy balance debate? Is ethanol energy positive? The DOE says yes, but there are still studies that dispute their findings. What of the harmful environmental impact of growing massive amounts of corn on U.S. farmlands and converting it to ethanol? Granted, Mr. Friedman's primary focus is to ween the U.S. off foreign oil, however, it's an issue that can't be dismissed when discussing the future of America's energy infrastructure. And finally, is the U.S. even capable of producing enough ethanol to significantly reduce our oil imports?

While it seems as though ethanol can provide a partial answer to America's energy problem, Mr. Friedman posits Brazil's successful ethanol industry as a model for the U.S. without revealing the flip-side of the argument and goes as far as implying America's hesitation to embark on a full-fledged ethanol effort as stupidity by saying, "If only we were as smart as Brazil ..."

[Source: New York Times]

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