Members of the biofuel- and transportation-research community say they are shocked and saddened by the death of Alex Farrell, a researcher who led a study that drew up a blueprint for California’s low-carbon fuel standard and who several peers described as “a leading light” in the field.
“I was really shocked – just blown away – to hear about this,” said Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars.org and an advocate of plug-in hybrids. “I just don’t believe it.”
Farrell, an associate professor in the Energy and Resources Group and director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley, died either late Sunday or early Monday at his San Francisco home. He was 46.
No cause of death was disclosed, and the San Francisco medical examiner’s office said it would take several weeks to complete an investigation.
Biofuel researchers called Farrell’s death a major loss, citing his work in analyzing the overall impacts of fuels throughout their lifecycles, including their energy balances and their effects on air, water and land. Farrell published more than two dozen peer-reviewed papers in journals such as Science, Environmental Science & Technology, Environmental Research Letters and Energy Policy.
“It’s a tragedy,” said Jim McMillan, a manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's National Bioenergy Center. “We need more of the lifecycle work moving forward. These are the types of analyses that are really important from a policy standpoint. It’s a real loss to the community.”
As governments create policies to reduce greenhouse gases, they are looking for defined benefits and want to select the proposals that move the bar furthest, he said. But the methods by which to evaluate these plans are still in contention, and Farrell’s work was bringing the scientific community closer to a consensus on methods they could agree on, McMillan said.
“Numbers are hard to come by and there’s subjectivity in a lot of this stuff,” he said. “It’s an important, emerging area that we should be spending some time on, and Alex Farrell was one of the people that was helping to move that area of lifecycle and full sustainability analysis forward.”
While other people also are working in those areas, McMillan said he was one of the leading lights.
“It’s a step backwards,” he said. “He was probably training the next generation of people who were doing that and now there are fewer people training and so it slows that down.”
Dan Sperling, the director of UC Davis’ Institute of Transportation Studies who collaborated with Farrell on two studies outlining a plan to reduce the amount of carbon emitted from transportation fuels, said the resulting low-carbon fuel standard would be Farrell’s legacy.
“He played a lead role developing it and worked with all the different groups to help to understand it and continue analysis on it,” he said. “That’s where he’s really going to be missed for biofuels, in [studying] the land-use-change effect and what that means to the low-carbon fuels standard and emissions generally for biofuels. He was the guy putting together all the different studies and integrating what was known.”
Sperling, who knew Farrell for 15 years, called his death “a loss on so many levels.”
“It’s a huge loss because there’s no obvious person to take over where he left off,” he said. “It’s a loss in terms of all the people that were working with him, it’s a loss to the policy community that was depending on him to bridge the gap between science and policy, a loss personally for many of us that have worked with him and have become good friends with him over the years.”
Born in Miami, Farrell was raised in New Jersey and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1984 with a degree in systems engineering. He served as an engineer in the Navy for five years and in 1996 received a Ph.D. in energy management and policy from the University of Pennsylvania.
Before joining UC Berkeley, Farrell worked at Carnegie Mellon University as a research engineer, the executive director of the Electricity Industry Center and then as an assistant professor of engineering and public policy.
Sperling said Farrell was emerging as a superstar internationally, making strong connections with European researchers and policy makers on low-carbon standards and biofuels. He was about to be asked to lead an effort to take the California low-carbon fuel standard design national, and it’s not clear who could take his place, Sperling said.
Sperling added that Farrell helped create a collegial atmosphere when the UC Davis and UC Berkeley team worked together on the low-carbon fuel standard.
“Because of him, it was a team of graduate students and faculty members that really worked together well,” he said. “The team worked collaboratively on a daily basis, and that’s almost unheard of in the academic world. It was one of his attributes that he didn’t care about competition between the universities or status. He really connected with people in a straightforward way. So on top of everything else, he was a great manager as well.
Kramer said one of Farrell’s biggest impacts was to help build an advanced energy community at Berkeley.
“The guy was an inspiration for a whole community of people,” he said.
With many of Farrell’s graduate students are looking at theses and dissertations in this area and no obvious successor to much of his work, many people are stepping forward to try to fill the gap, Sperling said.
“It’s actually taking many people to fill the gap that he’s left,” he said.
Farrell is survived by his mother, Alice Farrell of Harrisburg, Penn.; two brothers, Mark of Portland, Ore., and Brian of Portland, Maine; and his sister, Beth Ann Connolly of Harrisburg.
In lieu of flowers, Farrell’s family is requesting that contributions in Farrell’s memory be made to the Alex Farrell Memorial Scholarship Fund, Energy and Resources Group, 310 Barrows Hall, #3050, Berkeley, CA.