New fuels, more expensive


* Nuevos combustibles, más caros

New fuels, such as ethanol or biodiesel, are being looked for to serve as alternatives to oil. But sometimes it's good to remember that the motives are not strictly economic. Personally I do not see how these new fuels may come to be cheaper.

In agricultural countries many people say that the new fuels will be cheaper than oil and will be renewable, that is, they will never end. There is a suggestion of an economic revolution for the better, with savings in these countries' foreign trade balances, cheaper bus tickets and infinite energy to circulate goods all over the land.

While oil reserves are limited and some day they will end, there are still decades ahead for this to happen. And while the international price of oil is at a record level, I would like to see what will happen when the war in Iraq is over or the Texas oilman George W. Bush leaves the White House. (Post Scriptum: the price already fell).

Let us not forget that much of the research on alternative energy sources are there because of the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. This agreement does not regret that oil is running out, but instead, urges governments to turn away from this cheap source of energy that is the main cause of pollution in the world, and possibly, it is believed, of the current climate alteration. An analysis of the scientific reality of this is difficult, because unfortunately the issue of global warming has been politicized. But let us suppose that the hypothesis in vogue is the one that will end up twisting wills.

Before continuing, I must clarify that I will ignore the case of hydrogen, a great fuel yes, but quite complicated to transport and store. It is fine for rockets, but for cars the future has not arrived yet.

Specifically, the ethanol obtained from vegetable plants can absorb some of the CO2 from the air, reducing the accumulation of this gas that causes the greenhouse effect. The same applies to biodiesel.

Now let's see what happens in countries where these fuels are widely available. In Germany, it is estimated that 1 in 10 gas stations already sells blends of biodiesel and petroleum diesel fuel, and this blend is cheaper than pure petroleum diesel fuel. But we must not forget that petroleum is heavily taxed in that country.

In Brazil, which has the world's largest ethanol distillation program, this fuel from sugar cane became popular only with the introduction in the market of flex-fuel cars, which can run either with gasoline, or ethanol, or a mixture of the two, in any proportion. This technology, that may seem an improvement, actually hides the recognition of a problem: nobody wants cars fueled by pure ethanol. Those who remember the two-blocks-long car lines at many gas stations in the late '80s know why.

Today in Brazil the fact that the supply of ethanol depends on the moods of the weather (as any agricultural product), and on the price of sugar for export, is still not resolved. And we must not forget that the population is increasing steadily (and thus the national car fleet) but the amount of arable land is not. Unless we consider the Amazon jungle as "unproductive latifundium", ready for confiscation and utilization for the program...(?!)

The owners of flexible fuel vehicles usually fill the tank with ethanol at the time of harvest or when they circulate in ethanol-producing regions. The rest of the time, they find it cheaper to rely on gasoline supplies.

Another detail: if the entire motorcar fleet of the United States of America transitions to running exclusively on biofuels, 100 % of the territory of that country should be directed to supply them. What about crops to feed people? Don't even think about it!

Of course governments can launch decrees altering fuel taxes in order for ethanol or biodiesel always be convenient to the consumer's pocket. But let it stand for the record that this is a political intervention, and not the result of a technical advantage of these new fuels.

Aldo Loup.

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Originally published in ABC Color, on 5 May 2007. Photograph: Old, rusty gas pump, Little Rock, AR, around 1996. Photo credit: Stewart Isbell, With permission from Stewart Isbell.