Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Arguing With the Numbers

Over the weekend I read a remark in one of the Wall St. Journal's political columns that resonated with an implicit theme of this blog since its inception in early 2004. In her discussion of the budget crises facing various states and the debates concerning how to resolve them, Peggy Noonan highlighted the benefits of focusing on the numbers involved. "It doesn't matter if you're a liberal or a conservative, it's all about the numbers, and numbers are sobering things." Our national debate on energy would be much more productive if that same rationale were applied to it. That's happening more than it used to, perhaps because blogs are making some of the numbers more accessible, but an example in Monday's Journal reminded me just how far we still have to go in this regard.

In a supplement providing highlights from the Journal's annual "ECO-nomics" session in Santa Barbara, I saw a reference to a discussion of Brazil's sugarcane ethanol model and the merits of trying to apply something like that here, either on a domestic basis or by importing more cane ethanol. Brazil is widely credited for its vision of fueling its cars from domestic renewable sources, largely in response to the oil shocks of the 1970s. As hard as those were on the developed world, they were even more disruptive for developing economies. Today, Brazil consumes more ethanol than gasoline, because so many cars in Brazil run on either pure ethanol or a blend with a much higher proportion of alcohol than the standard US 10% blend. Who could fail to find this attractive, conceptually?

When we look at the actual numbers involved, however, we see Brazil's cane ethanol and its flexible fuel vehicle fleet in a somewhat different light, in terms of providing a model for the US. Start with the number of cars in the country, comprising around 26 million in a nation of 194 million, or 2/3rds the population of the US. By contrast, the US has more cars and light trucks than there are Brazilians. Next compare Brazil's total ethanol output to US gasoline consumption. With Brazil's annual ethanol yield approaching 7 billion gallons, and factoring in ethanol's lower energy content, the US would need roughly 27 Brazils worth of cane ethanol to fuel our car fleet, after subtracting the 13 billion gallons of corn ethanol we produce domestically, and ignoring logistical and fleet modification issues.

So without trivializing the important question of whether to continue to impose a tariff on Brazilian ethanol imported into the US, or taking anything away from the tremendous biomass conversion inherent in sugar cane grown in the tropics and processed in efficient facilities that make use of essentially every part of the cane plant to produce ethanol, sugar and a modest surplus of electric power, it's hard to see that we could encourage Brazil to ramp up its output enough to displace all the gasoline attributable to imported oil, or gear up US cropland in Florida and Louisiana to produce the equivalent. That conclusion couldn't be gleaned from purely conceptual arguments without the numbers.

This isn't intended as a slam on the Journal's conference or other high-concept confabs--I have attended many, myself, and found them very stimulating--or on Brazil's sugar/ethanol industry. It just seems that if our fiscal problems have finally reached the level of concern at which serious conversations must be grounded in the numbers, then energy deserves no less. And while I recognize that many of the numbers involved are daunting, there are many resources available to make them more accessible. That includes the recently revamped public website of the Energy Information Agency of the US Department of Energy. Although the update to EIA.gov has unfortunately blown up numerous embedded links in my past postings, the result seems to be more user-friendly.

Tomorrow I'll be participating in a webinar examining the energy implications of the unfolding revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East at The Energy Collective. Click here for more information and to register.

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