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In response to the oil crisis of the 1970s, Brazil created a domestic ethanol industry that is now thriving on all levels, from production, to distribution at gas stations, to nationwide adoption of flex-fuel cars. The episode examines what we can learn from Brazil's extraordinary success with ethanol, and whether other countries could follow suit.

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A Brazilian physicist and biodiesel and biofuel expert, José Walter Bautista Vidal is credited as the "father" of Brazil's sugar cane-based ethanol program. The former Secretary of Industrial Technology under the Geisel administration, he launched the government-run ethanol program (Proalcool) in the 1970s as an answer to the global oil crisis. Today, ethanol - both pure and mixed with gasoline - fuels nearly all vehicles in Brazil and makes up for more than $600 million of its export business.


A Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Steven Chu has directed the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, a renowned research laboratory in Berkeley, CA, since 2004. In February 2007, oil energy giant BP gifted Chu and his team of scientists $500 million to develop clean biofuel technologies, including cellulosic ethanol, an emerging alternative to corn-based ethanol. The UC-Berkeley professor also co-chairs an international InterAcademy Council (IAC) study, "Transitions to Sustainable Energy," with José Goldemberg (see below).


José Goldemberg is the former secretary of the environment and chair of the newly created Bioenergy Commission for the State of São Paulo, Brazil. One of the country's leading sustainable energy experts, the physicist also has served in various federal government positions, including Secretary of State for Science and Technology and interim Minister of the Environment, and also co-chairs an international InterAcademy Council (IAC) study, "Transitions to Sustainable Energy."


Daniel Kammen is a professor of energy and resources, public policy and nuclear engineering at the University of California-Berkeley. He earned his PhD in physics from Harvard University, where he worked on renewable energy technologies and environmental resource management. At Berkeley, Kammen is the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, a sustainable energy research, training and community outreach lab.


Republican Tim Pawlenty has been governor of Minnesota since 2003. A leading advocate for ethanol fuel, Pawlenty has mandated that the mixture of ethanol in gasoline be raised from 10 percent to 20 percent in Minnesota, which was the first state to require ethanol be mixed with gasoline. He has challenged governors and nations worldwide to adopt 10 percent ethanol use by 2010 and actively lobbies in support of ethanol.


A noted global energy expert, Vijay Vaitheeswaran covered worldwide energy politics, economics, business and technology as a correspondent for The Economist from 1998 to 2006. The author of Power to the People: How the Coming Energy Revolution will Transform an Industry, Change our Lives, and Maybe Even Save the Planet, a book about the future of energy, Vaitheeswaran recently completed Zoom: The Race to Fuel the Car of the Future.

In the U.S., few devices are as closely associated with fossil fuel consumption as the automobile. And with good reason: Americans are driving more than ever before. Nearly 250 million registered vehicles were on U.S. roadways as of 2004 and more than 600 million are in use globally. Yet the average car on the road in the U.S. averages only 20 miles per gallon, making it less fuel efficient than Henry Ford's Model T, released 100 years ago.

The world awakened to its growing fossil fuel dependency in the 1970s, when oil-producing Arab nations drastically reduced petroleum production and limited exports to certain western nations - including the U.S. - that supported Israel in its 1973 war with Saudia Arabia and Egypt. Few nations were adequately prepared for the export embargoes. Fuel prices skyrocketed, leading to oil shortages, rationing at gas stations and widespread economic instability in the west.

Many impacted countries took immediate steps to limit gas consumption and investigate alternative fuel options. In 1975, the U.S. government developed a fuel efficiency program - called Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) - that set standards on miles-per-gallon averages for passenger vehicles. But within a decade, the regulations lapsed and allowances were created for sport utility vehicles and other light trucks. Today, U.S. fuel economy averages are at a 20-year low, and the U.S. has the lowest fuel economy standards in the world.

The 1973 oil crisis caused a similar economic chokehold in Brazil, which was spending 50 percent of its export earnings to pay for imported oil. Redesigning its fueling program became a matter of national survival. Shifting its focus to sugarcane-based ethanol, Brazil created one of the world's most successful alternative fuel programs that, 30 years later, has reshaped its auto industry and given the country near-total energy independence.

Encouraged by Brazil's success, the U.S. has expanded its production of ethanol made primarily from corn, a crop with wide domestic availability. Today, the U.S. produces nearly 5 billion gallons of ethanol fuel and imports 109 million gallons, almost all from Brazil. Many critics, however, are skeptical of corn-based ethanol's environmental benefits, and are encouraging further research into new ethanol production technology.

In 1975, Brazil's military government recognized that ethanol made from sugarcane - an abundant crop in Brazil - was a viable national alternative to fossil fuel. A colorless alcohol, sugarcane-based ethanol is made from juice extracted from mashed and chopped cane stalks; the juice is put through a centrifugal process, sterilized and then fermented into alcohol by ethanol-producing microorganisms. As the cost of imported oil became increasingly untenable, Brazil's military government prioritized an ethanol production program, forcing sugar producers and the national energy company to shift from imports to domestically-produced sugarcane ethanol. The government also insisted that Brazilian auto manufacturers produce vehicles that run only on ethanol, and by the mid-1980s nearly all vehicles produced in Brazil ran on ethanol only.

Brazil's ethanol program was not without its flaws. In the early 1990s, international sugar prices rose, and Brazilian sugarcane producers shifted back to primarily producing sugar, leading to ethanol shortages. At the time, sales of ethanol-fueled cars were at 98 percent. Brazilians again faced lines at fueling stations and high prices. Public support of ethanol fuel plummeted, and sales of ethanol-only vehicles dropped to 3 percent of the market after the shortages. The Brazilian government demanded the auto industry find a solution that renewed ethanol's top position. The answer, introduced in 2003, was flex-fuel technology. Allowing for more fueling versatility, flex fuel technology relies on an electronic control system that automatically determines whether a car is filled with ethanol, gasoline or an ethanol-gasoline mixture. Volkswagen in Brazil was the first to adopt flex-fuel platforms, and now all models manufactured domestically by Volkswagen - and nearly all other vehicles manufactured in Brazil - have flex-fuel engines, allowing drivers to switch back and forth depending on fuel availability.

The U.S. primarily makes its ethanol fuel from corn, a popular American crop that historically receives substantial government subsidies. In 2006, 1.8 billion bushels of corn were used to create 4.9 billion gallons of ethanol. States such as Minnesota - under the leadership of Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) - are mandating that ethanol be added to supplement standard gasoline mixtures. Critics, however, maintain that corn-based ethanol is not a viable alternative. It requires large amounts of water to grow and fertilize, it costs more to convert into ethanol, and it produces less energy per unit of input than sugarcane. It's only marginally better than gasoline in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. And there are doubts about whether enough farm capacity is available to produce corn for both the energy market and the food market.

A potential alternative to corn-based ethanol production, cellulosic ethanol is a new way of making ethanol fuel from various plant-based inputs, including agricultural waste, wood chips, switchgrass, algae and other sources that don't compete with food or farming resources. Still under development, the biotechnology makes ethanol by adding yeast to the simple sugars pulled from cellulose, the material that comprises cell walls in plants, that then ferments into alcohol. While the U.S. government largely relies on states to determine their own alternative fuel needs, the Department of Energy announced in February 2007 that it's investing $385 million in six biorefinery companies to develop cellulosic ethanol technology over the next four years. When fully operational, the biorefineries are expected to produce more than 130 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year. 


NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: Was it a conscious decision, or a momentary lapse of reason? How did progress take priority over humankind? Could harnessing the world's energy that allowed our ascent now be the lynchpin of our downfall? Could it be we are connected to all living things in the universe, not the center of it? That decisions in Washington affect the mountain glaciers of Peru, deforestation in the Amazon affects the heat waves of Paris, that power plants in China affect air quality in Los Angeles. It's about facing what seem to be insurmountable challenges for what they really are: opportunities, to reinvent and redesign. E Squared: The economies of being environmentally conscious.



JOSÉ WALTER BAUTISTA VIDAL [SUBTITLE]: The first principle of thermodynamics say that nothing moves or transforms in the universe without energy. Energy that turns seeds into food. Stones into metals, metals into industries. Energy is a fundamental fact of nature for the process of building civilizations.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: If anything connects us all, it is the energy from the sun. It even connects us to the past with fossil fuels derived from captured sunlight that provides us today with the gas and oil that drive our way of life. With the unrealistic timetable of millions of years to replenish our oil supplies, and with the present threat of global warming, the need for a cleaner, more immediate way to capture the sun's power has led to innovative approaches. For some it means literally growing their own fuel.

NEWTON ANTONIO CHUCRI [SUBTITLE]: We know that fossil fuels pollute, that they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In the case of ethanol, this does not happen. It aids in sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere since our sugarcane fields are here for 12 months. Because it emits fewer pollutants, it has this ecological appeal that everyone is after.

STEVEN CHU: Ethanol is that wonderful stuff we drink. It's an alcohol, a live alcohol, and the way it's made is you have sugars, simple sugars, and we sprinkle some yeast on the sugars and the yeast ferment the ethanol and turn the sugars into this alcohol.

JOSÉ GOLDEMBERG: It's just like producing beer or whiskey, you know, and this has been done for thousands of years.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: Many countries around the world now produce ethanol from various crops. One of the most successful programs to date is in Brazil. Blessed with abundant sunshine and water, one of Brazil's major cash crops also happens to be excellent for biofuel production: sugarcane.

DAN KAMMEN: Sugar is a remarkably easy thing to make into alcohol because it's sugarcane and all you have to do is basically seal sugar in a container and it will ferment into an alcohol. So, it's very easy to do and it's a very positive on an energy payback because sugar cane grows very fast and you can make it, with very little input, into ethanol.

NEWTON ANTONIO CHUCRI [SUBTITLE]: This is where we will begin to extract the sugarcane juice, or in other words, extract the sugar from the sugarcane. This juice is then sent on to two sectors, evaporation and fermentation. The yeast will be added to the sugarcane juice and allowed to ferment for approximately four hours after which it will be centrifuged again and transformed into wine and then ethanol.

JOSÉ WALTER BAUTISTA VIDAL [SUBTITLE]: The fossil energy coming from oil comes from the sun, but it goes through the carbohydrates of plants, which deposits them at the bottom of the seas and lakes and it takes 400 million years to become oil. What we are doing is a shortcut of 400 million years. It's an enormous progress for mankind.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: It's easy to applaud Brazil for it's ethanol production, but what sets Brazil apart is how the country has transformed its energy and automotive industries. Ethanol has become a viable alternative to gasoline.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: What's extraordinary about Brazil is you cannot buy a gallon of gasoline in Brazil anywhere today. Every gallon you buy is either pure ethanol, which is made from sugar cane, or gasoline mixed with at least 20% of ethanol. Brazilians have been able to accomplish something that America hasn't, that is reduce their imports of oil to nothing.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: No dependence on foreign oil? Isn't that the stuff of campaign promises? What could have motivated a country of this size to attempt such a massive change?

VOICEOVER [HISTORICAL FOOTAGE]: After the Arab oil embargo first hit us a few years ago there were doubts about whether the energy crisis was phony. But today we know that the long term energy crisis is real.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: When the oil shocks of the 1970's hit, Brazil was caught in an economic crisis. So were a lot of other countries, but Brazil had some domestic resources. They had a huge sugar cane industry and so the military government at the time forced the sugar producers and the government energy company to try to shift the entire economy away from oil, which cost a lot because they had to import it, to using domestic ethanol. So the real impetus was not environmental, it was really financial and trying to get off of oil for economic reasons.
JOSÉ WALTER BAUTISTA VIDAL [SUBTITLE]: In Brazil specifically the president was a former president of Petrobras. He was highly competent in energy matters and he knew more about oil than about renewable energies, but he knew what the lack of oil would cause to modern society, so he prioritized the ethanol program.

JOSÉ GOLDEMBERG: It turned out that with the high prices, Brazil was spending one half, of its earning in exports to pay for the imported petroleum. So to find any replacement for petroleum became a matter of national salvation, really. The government took a very bold step. It decided that the cars would have to be changed to take 100% ethanol and the automobile industry agreed to that. At that time we had a military government - a rather mild military government compared to other countries - but it was still a military government. So it could take decisions which you would call "top-down," and it did. People argue today that you can only introduce a large ethanol program in a country using totalitarian methods, which I think is completely incorrect because it's a question of leadership, not totalitarianism exactly.

DAN KAMMEN: People look at Brazil like it was an overnight success story. And Brazil does, in fact, meet about 40-50% of its gasoline usage with ethanol instead, but it was hardly an overnight success. Brazil's been working on this for fifteen years.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: There were major hurdles along the way. In the early 1990s, the Brazilian government faced a real crisis in their ethanol program. With most of the cars running on ethanol, Brazil found themselves completely unprepared for temporary fuel shortages, caused by a poor harvest and unexpected demand in the sugar market.

JOSÉ GOLDEMBERG: The price of sugar went up a lot in the international market, and the producers of ethanol decided it was better for them to produce sugar so there was a shortage of ethanol, which destroyed the confidence of people on ethanol. Because they would come to a place which had ethanol and there was no supply. So there were lines and all that, and so on. And so I think that was very, very, very bad time.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: After untangling itself from the fuel supplies of other nations and making significant progress towards energy independence, Brazil found itself back where it started, with huge lines at the gas stations, a troublesome lack of fuel, and an enraged public.

JOSÉ WALTER BAUTISTA VIDAL [SUBTITLE]: At the time ethanol-run cars represented 98% of all cars. People had been buying the cars but didn't find ethanol in the gas stations. So they stopped. There was a period of collapse. It was a dark time.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: In the face of this new crisis, the Brazilian government did not waver from its national energy policies, as one might expect, but instead encouraged the auto industry to help find a solution.

ALBERTO OTEZO COSTOYA [SUBTITLE]: We had to develop technology that didn't exist in the world. We needed to apt domestic solution to the new a challenge. To stand on our own two feet, as they say.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: The key breakthrough that makes ethanol possible is flex-fuel technology. That is technology that lets cars run on gasoline or ethanol equally well, without any kind of hassle to the consumer and this is important because nobody's gonna buy a car that has a strange new fuel where you might not be able to fill up. You always want gasoline as a little bit of a back-up, as insurance, right?

ALBERTO OTEZO COSTOYA [SUBTITLE]: Volkswagen in Brazil was the first carmaker in the world to adopt this technology and now all the models we make here in Brazil have the total flex technology. How does the system work? It works on an electronic control system. The system does some calculations and determines what kind of fuel it has in the tank. After it identifies it, then it knows how much fuel it should receive.

MARCOS DADALTI [SUBTITLE]: From the moment that Volkswagen started selling flex engine cars, the new car sales increased by 20 percent. Before the consumer would think twice about getting an ethanol car. So now with the flex engine, when ethanol gets expensive like in between harvest in Brazil, what happens is the consumer fills it up with gasoline and then when ethanol gets cheaper, consumers go back to ethanol.

GAS STATION CUSTOMER [SUBTITLE]: I always fill it up with ethanol, it's cheaper and it lasts about as long as gasoline. The price of gasoline is R$2.40 and its expensive. The price of ethanol is between $1.40 and $1.30.

GAS STATION ATTENDANT [SUBTITLE]: I've been working for five years in gas stations and since then we've never run out of ethanol. I believe that in the future, because of the global warming, consumers will want only ethanol.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: It costs less than fifty bucks a car to put in this technology now because they've perfected it. They've made it really economical to do at the manufacturing site.

ALBERTO OTEZO COSTOYA [SUBTITLE]: The Brazilian auto market is having one of its best times ever - about 22% to 23% rise over last year in sales, and we believe that we will have to increase production even further. This technology has helped us sell cars.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: This is a real model for how developing countries could substitute out from oil and use their own domestic resources. How Brazil became an ethanol powerhouse really has to do with the vision but also the power of public policy. Brazil stuck with it they innovated, they came up with better and smarter policies and the the market responded with better and smarter technologies.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER [HISTORICAL FOOTAGE]: I, Jimmy Carter, do solemnly swear...

CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN BURGER [HISTORICAL FOOTAGE]: ... that I will faithfully execute...

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER [HISTORICAL FOOTAGE]: ... that I will faithfully execute...

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: Back in the 1970's the United States was also affected by the same fuel crisis that inspired the ethanol program in Brazil. At the time, the U.S. responded in its own way by creating policies that reduced emissions in oil usage, and these policies did have a real impact. Unfortunately, as soon as the oil crisis ended, the United States went back to its old ways, consuming gasoline with wreckless abandon.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: The U.S., at the same time, we actually had a pretty good response. We put in to force the fuel economy laws that are called CAFÉ, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. The U.S. was able to dramatically increase fuel economy of the fleet, at the same time, of course, oil imports dropped dramatically and the U.S. economy grew strongly. So we did pretty well. The problem is we kind of forgot about efficiency. We let those CAFÉ standards relax, we let in a big loophole for SUV's, and everyone knows what happened after that. Fuel economy sank to a twenty year low. Right now we're having cars on the road that are less efficient than Henry Ford's Model-T. That's a travesty.

DAN KAMMEN: What's happened in this country is there's been a series of energy acts every few years. They've really been a cobbled together set of subsidies. There's been no policy goals, there's been no statement like, we want to be less dependent on foreign oil, we want to see the development of an indigenous renewable energy industry. It's simply been a package of subsidies that were done through the classic pork politics. So, there is absolutely no policy.

GOVERNOR TIM PAWLENTY: I'm old enough to remember Jimmy Carter sitting in the White House some 30 or 35 years ago, you know, declaring the energy crisis that we had then and our country, Republicans, Democrats, all of us did basically nothing or not very much. We've been asleep at the switch. I'm glad that we're now finally scrambling to dramatically catch up.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: With a potential catastrophic crisis on the horizon, the United States is scrambling for alternatives to foreign oil. Could ethanol be the answer in the United States, as well?

DAN KAMMEN: Sugarcane can't be grown everywhere. It's got to be hot and it's got to have a lot of water available. Brazil happens to be both, so it's well suited there to produce ethanol from sugarcane. But it's not well suited as a U.S. crop.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: All ethanol is not created equal. America makes its ethanol from corn. Why? Because we have lots of corn and we have corn farmers who are very politically influential and we subsidize them to grow the corn, we subsidize the ethanol that we make from it, we have requirements that oil companies blend in that ethanol which is another kind of subsidy. The dirty little secret is corn is a lousy way to make ethanol. It's not environmentally friendly, it takes a lot of energy to grow the corn, to fertilize - corn itself is not an energy-intensive crop. This is, this is terrible. You'd never do this if you really cared about the environment. We're doing this mainly because we have politically influential politicians and lobbyists from the Midwest.

DAN KAMMEN: Well, corn is good. We like to eat it, it's very tasty, and we grow a lot of it. So, it's good for America on one level. But ethanol made from corn is not a good thing in terms of greenhouse gases. It's not worse than gasoline, but it's marginally better. Maybe it's 15 percent better with a big error bar.

GOVERNOR TIM PAWLENTY: People always fixate sometimes on one aspect of it. They say oh, you know, it's not as great for this reason or that reason as you think. And I say, wait a minute, let's look at the whole picture. First of all, it's great from a national security standpoint, it unhooks us from foreign oil. It's great from an economic standpoint, because we're not on the oil roller coaster as much as we might otherwise be. It also has obvious economic development benefits for our state.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: Growing ethanol out of American corn is a lousy way to do it. It creates a tension with food, there's no doubt about that. It will take up too much space if it ever really takes off and we want it to be a substitute for oil. We can't possibly hope to replace the oil that we use in America with American corn turned into ethanol. There wouldn't be enough land.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: The debate of land-use for "food versus fuel" and the concerns of mono crop farming wiping out bio-diverse habitats must still be explored. Even with these imperfections, might corn-based ethanol still serve as a stepping stone to developing more efficient biofuels?

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: The future really belongs to something even better, which is called cellulosic ethanol, done naturally a biotechnology enhanced way of making the straight fuel ethanol from any kind of input. It could be agricultural waste, it could be wood chips, switch grass. Lots of stuff that is very common in America and that wouldn't take up our food. There would be no tension between feeding our population or our agricultural businesses, because we'd be using agricultural waste.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: Could a major source of fuel really come from things like sawdust, grass and even, algae? The technology to make this a reality has not yet been perfected, but scientists are racing to develop the processes that will make it possible. One who is getting close is Dr. Steven Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

STEVEN CHU: The reason we're interested in cellulosic ethanol, or really more broadly, cellulosic fuels, is that the potential of per acre of how much land you need, how much water you need, how much extra nutrients like fertilizer you need in order to make a certain amount of biofuel like ethanol could be as much as a factor of 10 more than you can get from corn. Cellulose is the material that comprises cell walls in plants. It is a long chain of simple sugars that are linked together in what's called a polymer. The idea here is that you take a cell wall, you separate out those molecules to protect the cell wall from assault by fungi or bacteria and what you end up with then are these long chains of sugars that you take apart into simple sugars. And at that point you sprinkle the yeast to make alcohol. Why not get a microorganism that takes the place of yeast to develop a better biofuel than ethanol? So that's one of the immediate goals. Let's develop better microorganisms that break down the cellulose and start to produce better fuels. I hope 30 years from now that a substantial fraction of transportation fuel will be raised through crops.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: This has huge potential for our farm belt, for the domestic economy, as well as for environmentally friendly alternatives to oil.

GOVERNOR TIM PAWLENTY: Minnesota's moved real early and real aggressively towards ethanol, corn-based ethanol and I'm glad we did. It's been a real success story. But now as the technology evolves, cellulosic ethanol, that's gonna be the future.

DAN KAMMEN: The U.S. Congress recently passed a subsidy package for an initial set of ethanol companies and they got it right. They picked a bunch of cellulosic companies and that's what we want because we really do want to bring the cellulosic sources to market much more quickly than would happen if we just allowed them to sort of compete in against this massive corn and soy-based industry we have today because it's relatively easy to make corn and soy into ethanol, it's just nowhere near as good an environmental deal as the cellulosic sources.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: What do we want from public policy? We want alternatives to oil, reduced geopolitical dependence on the Middle East, fuels that don't perpetuate global warming - these are the right goals for public policy.

JOSÉ WALTER BAUTISTA VIDAL [SUBTITLE]: I think the U.S. is a very powerful country has instruments we don't have. They have technological competences, I think the U.S. may along this line of maximizing the use of sun's energy, they can become self sufficient and a major supplier of energy.

GOVERNOR TIM PAWLENTY: I think the political will is now there and when our country reaches a tipping point, as it has in renewable energy, we can move fast. And I think we're now poised to do that.

JOSÉ WALTER BAUTISTA VIDAL [SUBTITLE]: The flows of energy in the world can perfectly be managed. The more energy we produce, the best it will be for everybody because it will not be necessary to resort to war so that nations will survive. Of course when nations are under pressure, they resort to war and we have to prevent this from happening and the U.S. will play a fundamental role in providing harmony to the world. I'm sure that the United States will do it.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: In the face of climate change and global security issues, will we see the potential of biofuels to help create a more stable world? Will we realize that the future of energy is amazingly, something we can grow?

JOSÉ WALTER BAUTISTA VIDAL [SUBTITLE]: It's a new civilization. It's a civilization of photosynthesis where vegetables play an important role. We shall be able to plant energy. Fossil energy requires reserves that take hundreds of million of years to be created. Now we plant the energy we want by the same sun energy but in a more intelligent way.


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Growing Energy

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Growing Energy

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