Sugarcane Ethanol’s Ongoing Benefit to California

The future is bright for sugarcane ethanol, as it is poised to help meet LCFS goals while reducing the carbon intensity of hard-to-electrify sectors. Plus, new markets for the low-CI biofuel, including green hydrogen production, look promising.
By Leticia Phillips | November 07, 2022

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is undergoing its regular review to ensure the state is deploying the most cost-effective and technologically-advanced ways to achieve its aggressive climate goals. The “Scoping Plan” is updated every five years and it is an opportunity to assess what is working, and what’s not, in the fight to reduce greenhouse gases.

One thing we know is working is the Low Carbon Fuel Standard. Since its inception, the LCFS has driven down the carbon intensity of the fuels used to power California’s cars and trucks. This is a policy success other states—and countries—can and should emulate. 

As the Scoping Plan review unfolds, it is important to remember CARB’s storied history of environmental leadership. Created in 1967, the Board soon adopted the first nitrogen oxides standards for cars and led the way for the development of the catalytic converter, a groundbreaking advance in reducing auto-created smog.

Similarly, California was far ahead of the curve in 2011 when it put ethanol to work by deploying biofuels like Brazilian sugarcane ethanol to improve octane levels and lowering greenhouse gases emitted from cars and trucks, reducing the carbon intensity of the transportation market as part of the LCFS program. As a result, carbon intensity in transportation fuels has plummeted and CARB is slightly ahead of its goals.

Some may be inclined to discount biofuels in the ambitious push to electrify the California fleet, but biofuels remain a proven environmental tool that must be part of the plan to manage the decades-long transition away from petroleum.

It is easy to understand the appeal and promise of electric vehicles, but any impartial accounting of Brazilian sugarcane ethanol’s performance will reaffirm what we know to be true: Biofuels are essential to meeting California’s GHG goals and will continue to be so. It is important to note that hybrid flex cars using sugarcane ethanol have CO2 emission levels on par with electric vehicles.

Sugarcane ethanol’s efficiency has evolved over the last decade as has the harvesting and transportation that brings the biofuel to market. Innovative farming, mechanized harvesting, regenerative land use and improved shipping and supply processes all represent a commitment to constant improvement.

The future is bright for sugarcane ethanol as it is the best available option to reduce the carbon intensity in many hard-to-electrify sectors such as aviation and shipping. And new technologies are underway to use sugarcane to power some of the tens of thousands of electric vehicle recharging stations required for the EV revolution. Sugarcane ethanol is proving to be a solution for mobility and carbon emissions challenges now and in the future. One fascinating development is the possibility of producing green hydrogen through ethanol reforming processes.

Policymakers around the world are taking note of CARB’s work, and its end product will have implications far beyond California. States just now considering ways to reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuel with clean, high-quality fuels should be afforded the opportunity to leverage biofuel’s benefits as California did over the last decade. This will be made easier with an uninterrupted import market and incentives for importing this energy source at scale.

As CARB leaders proceed with their important deliberations, we only ask that Brazilian ethanol be scored fairly and accurately so that California residents can continue to enjoy the environmental benefits derived from the world’s most efficient and climate-friendly biofuel while electrification slowly begins to ramp up.

Author: Leticia Phillips
North American Representative
Brazilian Sugarcane
Industry Association, UNICA
[email protected]