Remembering Alex Farrell, the passionate analyst

I was shocked when I read the news about my friend and colleague:

Alexander E. Farrell, an associate professor in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley, who worked closely with state government over the past year to chart a course to reduce California’s carbon emissions, died earlier this week at his home in San Francisco. He was 46.

You can read the full obituary here. You can watch a video of him discussing the California low carbon fuel standard (LCFS), which he helped develop, here. He was director of the UC Berkley Transportation Sustainability Research Center, and, as you can see, he was both passionate and analytical, eloquent and scientific.


I was doubly shocked when I found out that he “had taken his life,” as one of his recent coauthors, Michael O’Hare, blogged —

Yesterday everyone associated with the Energy and Resources Group gathered to try to make sense of it and we failed completely. The afternoon before he died he was emailing people about plug-in hybrid batteries. No-one saw it coming, no-one remembered a conversation or a hint that he was in despair or depressed about anything.

I certainly did not see it coming. Sure, this can be a tough field to work in — coming to grips with humanity’s apparent disregard for the health and well-being of future generations. But I mostly heard a lot of optimism from him, since he was a leader on analyzing solutions and providing serious policies in the one state in this country that is taking climate as seriously as it deserves.

I have known Alex for many years, since June 2003, in fact, when he coauthored an article for Science, “Rethinking Hydrogen Cars,” (subs. req’d), and I emailed him, since I was researching a book at the time. He was superb at quantifying the difficult to quantify, and I cited him in my 2004 book as follows:

A June 2003 analysis in Science magazine by David Keith of Carnegie Mellon University and Alexander Farrell of U.C. Berkeley put the cost of carbon dioxide avoided by fuel cells running on zero-carbon hydrogen at more than $250 per ton even with optimistic fuel-cell costs.

He quickly became a friend and colleague, one of the very few people in the energy field whose judgment I trusted implicitly. I knew him as a brilliant and thoughtful analyst who cared a great deal about this planet. I lectured at his class once, and I invited him to join a hydrogen project I was working on for the National Science Foundation.

A couple of years ago we discussed co-authoring a piece on the carbon impacts of unconventional oil, but typically, I ended up writing about it in my book (and later my blog), while he did the hard analytical work for peer-reviewed publication that I have cited again and again.

I really don’t think I can do a better job of describing him than reprinting what O’Hare wrote:

Alex was only in his mid-40s and high on a steep upward professional path with no inflection point in sight: a key player in California, nationally, and internationally on the most important issue of the current era, and a model of scholarship and commitment for public officials, students, and peers. His death is not only a frightening and painful experience for everyone he worked with but also bad news for ERG, Cal, California, the nation, and the planet.

I spend almost all my time among really smart people and I take it for granted that I can learn something from any of them. We’re all pretty good at defending our positions. Arguing with Alex, however, was a higher-level experience, because while he would roll over for nothing without evidence and some good science, it was obvious that he would rather be forced to change his mind than to change yours. Working with Alex we could all feel ourselves getting better at what we did.

He was an Annapolis man whose career began as an officer in nuclear submarines, and his management style evidenced the best in the military tradition, by which I do not mean command-and-control hierarchical authority, I mean leadership and understanding that the duty of officers is to be sure their troops have what they need to figure out what would advance the mission, and to do it. I wish I could ask him for some guidance on what to do when the captain is shot off the bridge while action is underway; now we have to improvise.

My mother has often said to me that no one is indispensable, but some are irreplaceable. If anyone was both, it would have been Alex. He will be missed.

10 Responses to Remembering Alex Farrell, the passionate analyst

  1. Jade A. says:

    Very sad. I live in San Francisco and I have to say that this is really unfortunate. We need all the minds that we can get in this struggle to fight human induced climate change and from what was written about him in this blog, it seems like it’s going to be a great loss.

  2. EvilPoet says:

    My condolences to friends and family.

  3. Ronald says:

    My condolences at the loss.

    Hard to understand it.

    When I was growing up, a neighbor of ours shot himself and he had 6 kids with 2 more on the way. (twins) The widow and mother was left to raise them all herself.

    I remember reading about someone after the American Civil war who, in 1865, just couldn’t resolve himself that the confederacy was dead and that the states had to rejoin the Union. He then killed himself. Certainly some of that was pushed by the horror of war, and who really can know what goes on in others minds to know what we are disappointed about and what affects us.

  4. Hal Levin says:

    This is very sad news, indeed. His past and potential future contributions can only be characterized as enormously valuable.

    If you haven’t availed yourself of it, the paper by Alex and Adam Brandt, Risks of the Oil Transition in Environmental Research Letters, (Environ. Res. Lett. 1 (2006) 014004 (6pp), available at ) is one of the most useful papers in my collection. They show clearly that we will not run out of fossil fuels soon but that we have already run out of atmosphere and that development of remaining sources of fossil fuels present enormous environmental risks..

    Figure 1 in that paper elegantly expresses the trade-offs of cost and environmental risk/damage lurking in the remaining massive sources of liquid fuels. Approximately 20 times as much potential liquid fuel is available as has been consumed to date. Extraction, processing and consumption of fuels from these sources – conventional oil, coal, tar sands, shale oil, CTL syn fuels, GTL syn fuels, and oil shale — present likely economic costs that will not by themselves deter use but the environmental costs should.

  5. Alaina Goetz Fischer says:

    Alex was my roommate in college at SJSU, and I am absolutely shocked and horrified by this news… It makes no sense to me and I cannot imagine he would ever take his own life. I am scared by this news and don’t understand it. I am disturbed by the lack of details and mystery surrounding his death.

    The world has lost an amazing man.

  6. Juliette says:

    This brilliant scientist was headed to Minnesota to “enlighten” the legislature there about the full life cycle of corn ethanol which makes corn ethanol unacceptable as a fuel source. Needless to say, Minnesota is at the heart of the Renewable Fuel Association and Archer Daniel Midlands which is one of the major beneficiaries of the current Federal Mandate for Ethanol and its accompanying corn subsidies. ADM just experienced an extremely successful earnings quarter. When Alex Farrell did not show up at the appointed time in Minnesota, his ticket had been purchased, he was expected to appear before the legislature there, Minnesota called UC Berkeley. Authorities were sent to his home in San Francisco, and he was found deceased. As someone who had read a number of his excellent papers, and who knows some of his students and colleagues at Berkeley, this “suicide” makes no sense. One would hope that there will be a full investigation, perhaps a Grand Jury looking into this mysterious death.

  7. Bob Webster says:

    Alex’s loss was indeed a shocking piece of news and the deep impact it has had on his friends and family is obvious. He was one who pursued his beliefs passionately and honorably.

    For those who are further depressed by their concern about waging war against human-caused climate change, particularly with respect to carbon dioxide emissions, I highly recommend to you two new books: (1) Howard C. Hayden’s “A Primer on CO2 and Climate” (Hayden is a PhD in Physics and Prof. Emeritus, U. of CT) and (2) Roy W. Spencer’s “Climate Confusion” (Spencer is a PhD in meteorology and was Senior Scientist for Climate Studies at NASA). An objective read of these two books will help you through your concerns about human activity and atmospheric CO2.

  8. John Hollenberg says:

    Lest anyone be fooled by the post above, note that Roy Spencer’s satellite research claiming cooling in the lower troposphere was refuted, and that he is associated with organizations that receive funding from ExxonMobil. Details here:

    “Climate Confusion” is probably an apt description for his denial of global warming. Read the work of an author that isn’t confused.

  9. B says:

    I’ll miss you alex…

  10. Elle says:

    OMG – I dated Alex for 5-6 years and we remained friends after that, the last couple of years it had only been through Christmas cards or birthdays. When he missed my birthday this year I thought no big deal. When his Christmas card came back returned to sender I just figured he moved. When I called his cell tonight to wish him a happy birthday, it was no longer his number. When my birthday wish email bounced I went to the site to get his new address. Imagine my shock…… I’m still trying to process it. Suicide, it’s just not in his being. I know him, I’ve seen him when the chips were down, and his attitude was always fight, no matter what. I’m still processing, I just found out about this a half hour ago, this just doesn’t seem like the Alex I knew.