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Cane energy driving thesustainable mobility of the future

Sugarcane accounts for 18.0% of primary energy supply in Brazil, second only to oil (34.4%), and ahead of hydraulic energy (12.4%) and natural gas (12.2%). It is by far the most relevant renewable source of energy, and also coming from biomass, in Brazil´s energy matrix, with a massive importance in the generation of liquid fuel, ethanol, and bioelectricity produced in a sustainable manner.

In 2020, sugarcane ethanol replaced 48% of all gasoline consumed in Brazil, through the mixture of 27% anhydrous ethanol mixed with gasoline, and the use of hydrated ethanol in the flex fleet, which represents 86% of the light vehicle fleet in the country. The bioelectricity generated with biomass was responsible for more than 52 thousand GWh of electric generation, offered mainly in the winter months, when hydroelectric plants operate in a low regime due to the hydrological seasonality. Thus, bioelectricity increases the base generation capacity of the hydraulic system, without additional investments and without the need to build more dams, for water storage, and transmission lines. Electricity generation, like ethanol, is produced close to the consumption centers, avoiding investments and losses with transmission, which in Brazil are very significant.

More recently, new diversification routes have been developed with the production of second generation ethanol, through the use of bagasse and straw for the generation of cellulosic ethanol, and the production of biogas. The biogas generated by biodigestion of industrial process residues such as vinasse and filter cake, when burned in electric motors significantly increases the generation of bioelectricity, and when purified and transformed into biomethane, it is equivalent to fossil natural gas and can be used to replace the diesel oil used in trucks, tractors and harvesters, or injected directly into gas pipelines as it is fungible (dropin) to fossil-derived natural gas.

The whole world is looking for new forms of energy that are sustainable, energy efficient and clean for the environment. First and second generation ethanol, bioelectricity, biogas, biomethane, bagasse and straw in pellets to replace mineral coal in traditional thermoelectric plants, represent this form of energy that the world craves. And it does this in a replicable way, because it uses technology that is known and mastered. It is scalable, as it can start small, and grow over time. It is affordable in price to the consumer, as it is adapted to established forms of use, without the requirement to build a new production, storage and distribution infrastructure. It does not use scarce natural resources, such as rare or precious metals. It generates decentralized jobs and income, and has a very positive impact in terms of reducing local and global emissions, and therefore a significantly positive impact on health.

The sugar cane producer and processor sectors complement each other and operate in an integrated manner, generating energy and food for Brazil and the world. In the 2020/21 harvest, which ended at the end of March 2021, in addition to supplying ethanol that made it possible to replace 48% of all gasoline consumed in the country, it also produced sugar to supply the entire domestic market and generate exports of more than 32.2 million tons, supplying a global free market estimated at 54.6 million tons, which makes Brazil by a large margin the largest producer (with 41.46 million tons) and world exporter. Ethanol exports are also growing, reaching 2.92 billion liters in 2020/21, from a total production of 32.5 billion liters.

Ethanol is being used in vehicles equipped with internal combustion engines with a high compression ratio, therefore more efficient, which is a goal of automakers worldwide, and more recently in electric motors, through ethanol flex hybrids. Greenhouse gas emissions from flex ethanol engines today are 58 grams of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per km, and that of ethanol hybrids is 29 g CO2e / km. By way of comparison, a battery-powered electric vehicle in Europe today emits 92 g CO2e / km, and light gasoline and diesel vehicles emit an average of 124 g CO2e / km. Soon, electrification with fuel cells using ethanol will also be available, which use the hydrogen contained in ethanol as an energy source. These vehicles, considered to be the most modern and sustainable motorizations of the future, will have emissions estimated at 27 g CO2e / km. All these numbers are evaluated using the well-to-wheel concept, or according to the life cycle assessment (LCA).

Other countries are looking for equivalent solutions. India has decided to accelerate the adoption of ethanol mixed with gasoline, and in 2021 it is expected to reach an average mixture of 8.5%. In 2022, it is expected to reach 10%, and it has anticipated the schedule to reach 20%, from 2030 to 2025. In addition, it has already authorized the distribution of pure ethanol, E100, from 2021, opening the doors for the introduction of flex automobiles and motorcycles capable of using pure ethanol directly.

In 2021, Thailand will increase the ethanol mixture from 10% to 20% in all its gasoline, and other countries are following the same path by increasing the use of biomass ethanol in their transportation matrices.

Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, has classified biomass energy as the major neglected energy source in the world. But apparently the world is discovering the sustainability of this energy source that has its origin in BIO, in life, and in the renewability provided by the efficient, economical and safe transformation of solar energy into useful energy that is easy to store, transport and distribute.

Brazil offers this solution to the world, making available to all the technology that it has developed in the last 45 years. Technology that allowed Brazil to replace, since 1975, 3.3 billion barrels of gasoline, with savings of US$ 607.7 billion in avoided imports, including the cost of avoided external debt.

In 2021, the sugarcane harvest is expected to be momentarily smaller than it was in 2020, due to the drought in 2020, which continues in the first quarter of 2021. But prices remain competitive, and the private sector is prepared and eager to invest more, making it even more efficient and with lower costs, thanks to the incentive provided by RenovaBio, a certification scheme which rewards the most efficient producers by allowing them to issue more decarbonization credits.

For us to have an idea of what this means, in 11 years of operation Tesla vehicles generated savings of 3.7 million tons of carbon, in CO2 equivalent. Ethanol producers certified under RenovaBio in Brazil decarbonized in the first year of operation of the program, in 2020, more than 15 million tons of CO2e. In the second year, there will be an additional 25.2 million tons, and in 10 years, by 2030 it will be 620 million tons, equivalent to the whole emission of a country like France or Germany for an entire year.

Through sugarcane and the use of organic waste, Brazil demonstrates that bioenergy can be a relevant vector for the sustainable mobility of the future.


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