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A simple solution to pain at the pump?

Greener and cheaper, ethanol could fuel rural America — and won't feed Mideast terrorism. Dateline's Stone Phillips reports.

Pain at the pump is the price of this country’s addiction to oil. Americans are feeling it intensely—outraged over oil company profits, fearful that another hurricane in the gulf, or a terror attack in the Middle East is all it would take to send prices even higher.

But what if there was one solution to all of this?  Something that could solve America’s energy crisis, strengthen our national security, and help save the planet at the same time?

Vinod Khosla:  I looked, did my research and found this was brain dead simple to do.Stone Phillips, Dateline anchor:  Is it going to mean spending less at the pump?Khosla:  Absolutely. The consumer would be paying a dollar a gallon or less.

At age 51, Vinod Khosla is one of the world’s most successful venture capitalists and a self-made multibillionaire.

He came to the U.S. from India in 1976, and over the next 25 years, is said to have created six new jobs for every day he’d been in the country. Though not a household name, Khosla was a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and renowned in business circles for his meticulous research and ability to spot the kind of innovative technology that can revolutionize an industry.   

Three years ago, he turned his attention to alternative fuels.

Khosla:  What could be better than a greener fuel that’s cheaper for consumers, that doesn’t feed Mideast terrorism, yet instead fuels rural America?

He’s talking about a new generation of ethanol— the fuel made from plants. It’s one fuel he says is just around the corner and will deliver 4 to 10 times the energy of today’s corn ethanol.  Khosla knows, because he’s talked to top scientists, visited labs and he’s a bio-medical engineer himself.  He believes this new ethanol can replace gasoline and eliminate America’s dependence on foreign oil.

Phillips: How long before you believe this country could be energy independent if it switched to homegrown bushels instead of imported barrels?Khosla:  I think you’ll be surprised by my answer.  In less than five years, we can irreversibly start a path that can get us independent of petroleum.Phillips:  What convinced you this was a must for America?Khosla: I heard about Brazil.  I heard they were already doing it. Brazil’s proven it already.  How dumb can we be?

Sao Paulo, Brazil is a sprawling city of 18 million people.  Late last month, we flew there with Khosla to see what a country transformed by ethanol looks like.     

Phillips:  This has you pretty charged up, doesn’t it?Khosla:  It is very exciting.

Here, ethanol is just part of life. It’s sold at every gas station, including some with very familiar names. Consumers can’t get enough.

Brazil’s been committed to ethanol for 30 years, but if you want to know how it became such a hot commodity lately, start by looking for this label: “flex”.  It means cars can run on gas or ethanol. The key to ethanol’s popularity here in Brazil is choice. If you drive a flex-fuel car, you get to choose every time you pull up to the pump.

The choices are gasoline, ethanol—or alcohol as they call it there,  or a mixture of the two.  You check the prices and make your choice.

Most drivers here choose ethanol, because it’s so much cheaper that even though they get fewer miles to the gallon, it still saves them money.

The flex-fuel cars that triggered the ethanol boom were introduced here three years ago. Already, three of every four new cars sold have the technology.

And who’s helping to feed Brazil’s flex-fuel fever?  American car makers like GM and Ford.  

Barry Engle, president of Ford Brazil: 70 percent of a particular model is sold with the flex engine.  And 90 days from now it will be 100 percent.

Barry Engle is the president of Ford Brazil.  

Engle:  This isn’t science fiction, this is real world technology that we’re using in Brazil everyday on a broad scale basis.

At a time when ford and other U.S. automakers are posting huge losses, sales in Brazil are up. 

Phillips:  Are you telling your fellow executives up in Detroit, "Get more flex-fuel, this is the future?" Has that been the message that you feel like you’ve been bringing?Engle: Yes. There is already, in Detroit, a lot of interest in this particular technology.

In fact, both Ford and GM already sell flex cars in the U.S. And how much more does this new technology add to the sticker price?  Not a dime. 

Phillips: This is not an expensive proposition for automobile makers.Engle: No. It doesn’t have to be. Phillips: And there’s no reason it can’t be translated elsewhere?Engle:  As long as the fuel is available.

In Brazil, that fuel is plentiful thanks to a crop as sweet as candy— sugar cane.

Brazil is turning sugar cane into the equivalent of 300,000 barrels of oil a day.  To people in this country, what you’re looking at is a field of dreams: Homegrown security that has helped this country to completely free itself from foreign oil.

Last month, Brazil announced it no longer has to import oil from the Middle East or anywhere else. And much of the credit goes to ethanol.

The world's largest sugar cane mill is located in Barra Bonita, Brazil, producing more than 100 million gallons of ethanol a year.

After the cane is harvested, by hand or machine, the stalks are fed into the mill.  They’re crushed. The juice separated and sent to tanks to ferment.  Ethanol operations are really just industrial-sized moonshine stills. Khosla sampled the product straight from tank.

But what really intoxicates him isn’t what he tasted, but the opportunity he sees in what’s being thrown away. With new technology, Khosla says you can process these mountains of leftovers and triple the amount of ethanol you get, dramatically reducing costs.   

Khosla: My bet is it’d be a lot cheaper than $1 a gallon.  It might even be less than 70 cents a gallon right there. Right today.

And that’s exactly Khosla’s vision for America— putting new generation ethanol plants next to paper mills, turning their leftovers into fuel.  Or even next to orange juice factories, where he says ethanol from peels could replace petroleum. 

But that’s only part of it. To really make America an ethanol nation, Khosla says billions of gallons will come from something as common as prairie grass. He says it’ll be much cheaper and deliver 10 times the energy it takes to make it.

Khosla: We could return the country back to the prairie grass that it used to have hundreds of years ago and make, and meet all our petroleum needs. Phillips: Back to the future?Khosla: Back to the future. There is nothing standing in the way.

He’s so sure about it he’s become an ethanol evangelist— preaching to governors, senators and even key advisors to the president who despite his roots in Texas oil is sounding like one of the converted.

In his April 25th speech, President Bush said, “Ethanol will replace gasoline consumption. Ethanol is good for the whole country.”

Khosla: The environmentalists love it because it’s greener. The neo-conservatives like it because it ensures energy independence and security for America. The farmers love it because it takes oil dollars and moves it to rural America.Phillips:  It sounds almost too good to be true.Khosla: I’m not this “imagine some kind of hypothetical future” kind of person. But it is a very pragmatic vision.

He may be man of vision but Khosla’s under no illusions about the resistance ethanol faces back home from big oil.

Some oil companies have complained that putting ethanol at their stations would require costly and complicated changes to their trucks, tanks and pumps.

Phillips:  How much of a burden will that put on oil companies to start distributing ethanol?  To dedicate a pump to ethanol?  I mean what about trucks? What about their holding tanks?Khosla: In most cases, the same holding tanks can be used.  The same trucks can be used to transport the ethanol.  There are logistics problems to be solved, to be sure, but it’s not a difficult transition. I’ve looked at all the issues they raise. In fact, most of them are bogus.

As for the expense, Khosla estimates it would cost about $15 to 20 million to offer ethanol pumps at a thousand gas stations in California. 

Khosla: $15 to 20 million dollars.  Exxon alone made 36 billion dollars last year.

But Khosla, who’s invested millions of his own money in companies working on ethanol technology, says government must play a role as well, by requiring that gas stations everywhere offer ethanol, that all new cars be flex-fuel, and that oil companies play fair.

Khosla:  We need to make sure that the major oil companies don’t manipulate the price of oil enough to drive ethanol out of business.Phillips:  Do you believe oil companies would deliberately drop the price of oil?Khosla:  Absolutely. A senior executive of a major oil company came up to me and said, “Be careful.”  In a very warning tone he said, “Be careful, we can drop the price of gasoline.”

The battle to bring ethanol to your neighborhood pump is just beginning, but Vinod Khosla is confident that time and technology are on his side.

Phillips: What do you say to skeptics, who say, you’re a money maker, you’re an investor and what you’re trying to do here is to drum up support and governmental help to make sure your investment pays off?Khosla:  Well, I am in the business of investing. But in fact, this has become a mission for me: to get the message out of how simple it is to get independent of petroleum.  In fact, my mission now is to put the fossil in fossil fuels.

President Bush is expected to meet later this month with the heads of the Big Three American automakers and ethanol will top the agenda. Wal-Mart has also confirmed to Dateline that it's working out details to sell a fuel that's 85 percent ethanol at its retail locations that sell gas.