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Researchers Propose Biofuels Rating System

One illustrative example of a Green Biofuels Index based on global warming impact and a feedstock rating. Click to enlarge.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are proposing a biofuels rating system—based on a full lifecycle analysis—that would reflect the positive or negative environmental impacts of a particular fuel.

Alex Farrell, Michael O’Hare and colleagues in UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group and in the Goldman School of Public Policy published a report—Creating Markets for Green Biofuels—on the issue to stimulate discussion on how best to formulate such a system.

The study was partially supported by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Science Foundation’s Climate Decision Making Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

Biofuels link markets in fuel, food and land in quite complicated ways, and there are no rules about how to judge the environmental and global warming impacts of producing and processing these fuels. As these technologies get better and cheaper, there will be competition for use of land, whether for food or wilderness. This is inherently a problem of biofuels. A discussion of biofuel labeling could help the domestic debate about how to develop biofuels.

—Alex Farrell

The report lays out a range of possible options for a Green Biofuels Index, from voluntary labeling akin to the “organic” food label, to mandatory labeling like today’s nutrition information, to more stringent government regulations like those required by renewable portfolio standards, which mandate that a state generate a percentage of its electricity from renewable sources.

The UC Berkeley group urges environmental, agricultural and regulatory agencies to join forces with local, state and national governments to develop this Green Biofuels Index, and that funding agencies should research ways to measure the environmental performance of biofuels, such as their impacts on global warming or farmland.

The paper makes four specific recommendations:

  1. Measure the global warming impact (GWI) of biofuels. Several official processes for evaluating individual biofuels in a regulatory environment are currently under development, including the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation in the Uk and the Low Carbon Fuels Standard in California.

  2. Measure the overall environmental performance of biomass feedstock production.

  3. Develop and implement a combined Green Biofuels Index. Combining a GWI measure and a feedstock production rating would create such an index.

  4. Develop better assessment tools, practices, and assurance methods.

Co-authors on the paper also include graduate students Brian T. Turner and Richard J. Plevin of UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group. Turner also is with the Goldman School of Public Policy. Plevin was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

(A hat-tip to Luther!)



Rafael Seidl

Rating biofuels - in the US, primarily ethanol - based on how they are produced sounds like a good idea. After all, they are supposed to deliver both a measure of energy independence (from OPEC) and, mitigate global warming. Above all, they are supposed to assuage guilt-ridden drivers of gas-guzzling FFV trucks and SUV that they can have their cake and eat it, too. At least, that is what the marketing departments of various corporations want consumers to believe: bio-(anything) = good. Trust us, there's no need to delve any deeper. This spiel is in full effect in Europe as well.

Unfortunately, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. These researchers have come up with a way to put into stark relief the large gap between the spin put forward by the corn, ethanol and auto industries and, the reality that corn ethanol actually does very little for anyone but them. Educating the public could undermine their lucrative business models, which are based in no small part on subsidies, protectionist tariffs and CAFE/gas guzzler tax loopholes big enough to drive a truck through. No, make that several million trucks.

Therefore, expect these industries to initially try to ignore this effort and, to make campaign contributions to those politicians who do the same. If that doesn't work, expect them to muscle their way into whatever standards body emerges and, to complicate and obfuscate the ratings process until consumers no longer trust it. Conveniently, it already includes arithmetic, instantly turning off at least half the population because math is really hard (again, this applies in equal measure in Europe).

At that point, industry will come up with a much simpler alternative, i.e. one that makes whatever products and processes they have look really, really good and worth every penny of public money spent on them. Indeed, more! Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Don't get me wrong, I don't have a fundamental problem with capitalism or democracy - both are the worst options save for all the others. It just strikes me as a little naive to think that big business would sit idly by while a bunch of well-meaning ivory tower types from the People's Republic of Berkeley start messing with the bottom line.


Don't worry, there'll be some cheery estimate that ethanol from corn cuts gasoline consumption by 400 million gallons per year while this rating system is marginalized. Million is a big number, right?

Paul Richards

Biofuels are a dead end. They will starve the poor and pollute the air. They offer no solutions to the problem we face, which is global warming and species extinction based on the current human footprint. Simple enough to understand. Why do these dead end solutions keep raising their ugly heads?


To the extent that the use of biofuels encourages the purchase of large trucks and SUVs (which it does), whatever benefits they may have are more than erased by the poor mileage of these same vehicles. GM, especially pushes these big trucks and SUVs because they get an unjustified credit against their CAFE standards for selling these fuel guzzling vehicles.

Regardless, no fuel or even technology to save fuel is going to sufficiently address the fact that the current level of fossil fuel use is unsustainable. Sorry for the slightly broken record but the sheer increase in number of vehicles and miles traveled will overwhelm all attempts to fix this problem through different fuels or more efficient vehicle.

The best vehicle is a stationary vehicle.


Remember the reason they use corn is they know the plant very well. Its only just started yet is cheap enough to be prifitable. They right now are recombobulating the plant to enhance its output in ethanol and likely over the next 15 years will double the yield.


Paul Richards,
Look at case 6, residues and waste.


Tom, as long as you have that kind of doom and gloom attitude, then you'll stop trying to find solutions and it really will become an insurmountable problem. You're being very counterproductive.


It's good to have someone doing the research and publishing the tables, but the information will have to feed into public policy. Having filling stations with star ratings on various pumps and letting market forces work is hopefully not being proposed. Unless very close in price consumers will always opt for the cheapest solution. Issues of CO2, tailpipe emissions and whether they are contributing to inflationary pressures in food are indeed complicated and will be forgotten at the drop of a hat when consumers are confronted with something that allows them to keep an extra $5 in their pocket.

The regulations, subsidies, import tariffs, etc. enacted by our government is what will drive the economics and hence the outcome.


A valuable and even more necessary addition to a biofuel ratings system is a body of knowledge, open in its affiliations and purpose - that will interpret the details for lay consumption. Though in the end most people vote with their pocketbooks, as awareness of global impact rises, so does social conscience. Thus purchase decisions like organic vs. cheaper non-organic produce weigh heavier as health/environment issues rise. Robust economics show very clearly that organic foods are chosen far more often today than just a few years ago.

But, as has been pointed out, these "systems" can be manipulated as the "organic" labeling has in its conversion from a California standard to a USDA standard.


I read the paper.
Their analytical technique appears to be a "black box."
Too bad.


gr, I wish I could interpret the organic food trend as optimistically as you do. I live in S. Cal where we certainly have a lot of "health" and "organic" stores... Wild Oats, Whole Foods, etc. I see a very high correlation between those people that I know shop at these types of stores to the ones that shop at other expensive high end stores like Bristol Farms, Gelsons, etc. and eat out at expensive and often unhealthy restaurants. Only a small subset of people I know shopping these organic stores really make efforts to maintain healthy, balanced diets. Meaning... I suspect that a lot of the market success of organic has to do with the desire to partake in what is perceived as luxury buying.

Fuel is a problem because unlike food or a Prius, once it's in your tank nobody can tell what you got. There is no "look I'm a kewl guy cuz I've got a Prius" or "look I'm healthy and wealthy because I shop at Whole Foods." Unless humans change a lot more than I imagine they will, a majority will opt for whatever is cheapest when the anonymous decision time comes at the pump.


If people will opt for the cheapest, then people will opt for electric which costs only pennies per mile, and that will be good for everyone.

As for the commentator that said corn ethanol was profitable, he's clearly ignoring ignoring the enormous subsidies that corn ethanol get.

People complain about Amtrak needing subsidies all the time, but I hear next to nothing about the billions of tax dollars that are being pumped into ethanol every year. Lets get our priorities straight, and keep our message strong.

No to subsidizing ethanol, yes to electric cars and trains!



I think that relying on the fantasy world of bioufuels to save our bacon is counterproductive. Please tell me how we are going to cut our energy consumption while China is building their economy on the top of massive expansion of automobile use. Biofuels, putting aside the energy return and environmental issue, will never come close to meeting current and projected liquid fuel needs.


Tom, corn ethanol won't come close to meeting our energy use but this is far from the only biofuel source.


It all helps, biofuels, hybrids, PHEVs, telecommuting..everything helps to reduce the use of oil. We all know these are good ideas and just because one of them is not the total answer by itself, we should not give up using all of them. This is a BIG problem, requiring many big solutions. The sooner we get on with the business of transitioning to these new ways, the better off we will all be.

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