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Growing Energy
Education Excerpt 3:07 min
Growing Energy
PDF Documentation

During the oil crisis of the 1970s, Brazil recognized that its dependence on foreign energy sources made its economy incredibly vulnerable. And since that time, the country has created a domestic ethanol industry that is thriving on all levels, from production, to distribution at gas stations, to nationwide adoption of flex-fuel cars.

Changing the entire automobile industry wasn't easy, but through consistent policies and a dedication to building an infrastructure, Brazil was able to emerge as an energy independent country with a thriving flex-fuel automotive industry. Because of Brazil's tropical climate, abundance of land, and  established sugar cane industry, it was able to produce ethanol fuel from sugar cane without creating a shortage of sugar cane for other uses. In the early 1980s, the public was buying ethanol cars, gas stations were providing ethanol fuel, and the industry seemed to be responding well to the country's energy needs. But in the late 1980s the ethanol industry nearly collapsed when oil prices dropped significantly, leaving owners of ethanol cars with higher fuel prices and no choice but to pay them. Ethanol fuel production dropped, creating shortages and forcing consumers to think twice before buying ethanol cars. But Brazil's policies, ranging from tax incentives to mandates for government vehicles, continued to encourage the establishment of a vibrant ethanol industry, and the market responded.

Recognizing that consumers didn't want to be limited to one fuel choice when they purchased a car, Volkswagen was the first company to introduce a flex fuel car that would run on gasoline or ethanol. After the introduction of flex fuel cars, consumers felt more comfortable purchasing new cars, and the ethanol industry was given a second chance. According to Newsweek, as of July 2007, flex fuel cars make up more than 80 percent of new car sales in Brazil.

Strong federal policies, infrastructure, manufacturing, and consumer acceptance were the keys to longevity that led to the remarkable success of Brazil's ethanol industry. What can the United States learn from this model?


1. What do you know about ethanol? Where does it come from and what is it used for?
2. Where does most of the oil that we use in the United States come from? What problems do we currently face due to our society's dependence on oil?
3. Why do you think farmers in the United States are sometimes paid to not grow on their land?

Link to resources to conduct research on these topics.


1. Should the United States consider pursuing ethanol as a fuel for cars? Why or why not?
2. Describe the difference between ethanol made from corn and ethanol made from cellulosic sources. Is one preferable to the other? Why or why not?
3. Even though the United States doesn't have the climate to duplicate how Brazil created ethanol, can the United States gain knowledge from the success that Brazil has had with ethanol?



Engineering Education
Standard 5.6: Knows renewable and non-renewable sources of energy (e.g., fossil, wind, nuclear, solar)

Standard 5.8: Understands how the use of domestic and commercial power and energy affects the environment

Standard 14.4: Understands how societal interests, economics, ergonomics, and environmental considerations influence a solution

Standard 16.3: Understands the role of research and development in the production of new or improved products, processes, and materials

Standard 17.6: Understands tradeoffs among characteristics such as safety, function, cost, ease of operation, quality of post-purchase support, and environmental impact when selecting systems for specific purposes


Standard 3.2: Knows ways in which social and economic forces influence which technologies will be developed and used (e.g., cultural and personal values, consumer acceptance, patent laws, availability of risk capital, the federal budget, local and national regulations, media attention, economic competition, tax incentives)

Standard 3.3: Knows that alternatives, risks, costs, and benefits must be considered when deciding on proposals to introduce new technologies or to curtail existing ones (e.g., Are there alternative ways to achieve the same ends? Who benefits and who suffers? What are the financial and social costs and who bears them? How serious are the risks and who is in jeopardy? What resources will be needed and where will they come from?)

Standard 4.6: Knows that a design involves different design factors (e.g., ergonomics, maintenance and repair, environmental concerns) and design principles (e.g., flexibility, proportion, function)

Growing Energy

Education Excerpt 3:07 min

Growing Energy
PDF Documentation