UC Berkeley News


Rating system for biofuels would help consumers
Motorists might respond well to a Michelin-style 'star system' identifying the greenest fuels, researchers say

| 18 April 2007

The debate over whether biofuels like ethanol are better for the environment than fossil fuels has left many consumers confused and unsure where to fill up their gas tanks.

Policy expert appointed to biofuels panel
Berkeley's Alex Farrell joins international effort to develop standards for sustainable biofuels

Much of this confusion could be eliminated with a biofuels-rating system that would reflect the positive or negative environmental impacts of a particular fuel, say a group of Berkeley researchers. A ratings system would take into account all environmental aspects of biofuels processing and production, from the way biofuel crops are tilled and fertilized to the kinds of energy - coal, natural gas, or biomass, for example - used to process them.

Such a system would not only help consumers make decisions about where to fuel up but, perhaps more importantly, stimulate competition among fuel producers to market the greenest fuels possible, driving the less-green biofuels out of the marketplace in favor of ones that really serve the planet.

"We think it's feasible to design a workable and effective ratings system for green biofuels today with the types of information that many farmers and many biofuel production facilities already collect," says study co-author Alex Farrell, assistant professor of energy and resources and director of the campus's Transportation Sustainability Research Center. "The American biofuels industry can produce much greener biofuels than they do today, and I think they can do so at reasonable prices and at a profit."

Such a labeling system would reveal, for example, that a fuel, such as ethanol, varies widely in its environmental merit depending on its production history, according to co-author Michael O'Hare, a professor of public policy. Some ethanol in current use is little better, or even worse, for the environment than gasoline, while other ethanol is beneficial.

Farrell, O'Hare, and colleagues in the Energy and Resources Group and the Goldman School of Public Policy disseminated a research report on the issue this week in hopes of stimulating discussion around the nation on how best to formulate such a labeling system. Called "Creating Markets for Green Biofuels: Measuring and Improving Environmental Performance," the study is online at the website of the campus Transportation Sustainability Research Center (www.its.berkeley.edu/sustainabilitycenter/). 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," notes Farrell, who was appointed this week to an international roundtable to draft global standards for sustainable biofuels production and processing. (See story.) "As these technologies get better and cheaper, for example, 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."

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 that required of the renewable portfolio standard. While Farrell thinks a star system, like that used by Michelin and others to rate restaurants and hotels, would be more flexible than a gold-silver-bronze medal system, he stresses that any system could take into account the issues consumers seem most concerned about.

"I think people understand that energy is a product that has lots of environmental implications, and if they had the choice to know what was good or bad, I bet they would like to know that," says Farrell. "It's quite likely that, even if it were required as part of regulation, fuel makers and distributors could develop their own brand and their own marketing strategies around how green their fuel is, using the type of information this will provide."

While Farrell and his colleagues discuss only environmental ratings, such a system could probably incorporate other issues, such as social justice or worker rights.

New biomass fuels will expand choices

Today, consumers in the United States have only a few biofuel choices: E85 ethanol, 95 percent of which comes from corn; biodiesel, which comes primarily from soybeans but also from canola and sunflower oils and waste cooking oil or grease; and what's called renewable diesel, which is made from biomass injected into the petroleum diesel process. But Farrell predicts that other fuels will soon reach the market, including biobutanol and synthetic diesel, which is made entirely from biomass.

New research, such as that planned by the Energy Biosciences Institute (recently proposed as a partnership between Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, with $500 million in funding from energy giant BP), could produce much greener biofuels, Farrell notes.

If biofuels with the same chemical identity can be distinguished by a rating system such as the authors propose, "markets for green biofuels would stimulate a new wave of innovation, creating high-value and truly green biofuels, and enhancing energy security by diversifying our energy sources," they write.

The Berkeley group urges environmental, agricultural, and regulatory agencies to join forces with local, state, and national governments to develop a Green Fuel Index, while funding agencies should focus research on ways to measure the environmental performance of biofuels, such as their global-warming impact or their impact on farmland.