Michigan Farmer Logo

Explainer: What is a carbon intensity score?

There’s potential new farm revenue for those who can prove how climate-smart practices lower your farm’s CI score.

Jennifer Kiel, Editor, Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer

June 5, 2024

4 Min Read
Gathering carbon data from the field.
DATA HARVEST: Producers need to collect data to determine their carbon intensity score. Ethanol plants providing sustainable aviation fuel in the future may receive tax credits starting Jan. 1. Igor Borisenko/Getty Images

As the process of making sustainable aviation fuel continues to unfold, knowing your carbon intensity score will serve farmers well if they are planning to deliver to ethanol plants that expect to make SAF. That’s because new tax incentives for biofuel producers center around feedstocks produced with climate-smart, low-carbon practices.  

So, what is a carbon intensity score? Every fuel is scored based on the amount of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions associated with a megajoule of energy. The score considers everything associated with producing, distributing and consuming fuel. 

A farmer’s CI score, or carbon footprint, includes everything in the production and delivery of the crop to an ethanol plant. Currently, grains contribute from a third to a half of the carbon intensity of a gallon of biofuel. 

Why it matters 

Beginning Jan. 1, the Treasury Department will offer tax credits for the production and sale of low emission transportation fuels, including SAF.  

A CI score of zero equates to carbon neutrality. Today, the estimated national average CI score for corn is 29.1g of greenhouse gases per megajoule of ethanol energy 

Farmers who reduce their corn’s CI score below 29.1 GHG/MJ are being sought after and paid for their low-carbon crop and the data associated to prove the score.  

Related:Information Library

The details are yet to be approved by the Internal Revenue Service, but the value per bushel is estimated to be as much as 5.4 cents per CI point reduced below 29.1. This means farmers can earn substantial new revenue by collaborating with biofuel producers to jointly produce low-CI fuels, says Mike Estadt, an Ohio State University Extension educator. 

“If you could get to net zero, that would be a $1.57 value per bushel of corn,” he says. “With 200-bushel-per-acre corn, that’s $314 per acre.” 


No one is sure how this will work out for the farmer because the refiner gets the credit.  Ethanol plants may need large capital investments to capture carbon dioxide. But the quickest and easiest way for them to qualify for the tax credits may be to source corn with lower CI scores. 

“How much of that $314 does the ethanol plant want to use to put a premium on the farmer’s raw product?” Estadt asks. “There’s going to have to be some share. Because without the corn, you don’t get the credit.” 

Estadt believes this transaction will be negotiated and give farmers more marketing options. Farmers not only will consider the basis when they sell, but also will look for which ethanol plant offers the best carbon premium.  

Tips for collecting data 

Farmers will need to provide data to participate in the SAF pipeline.  

“You will have to keep good records, as companies are going to demand it, or they may not buy your corn,” Estadt says. 

Once a score is determined, certain practices can drastically lower the score. The variables that matter most include: 

  • raising yields, which spreads emissions over more bushels to lower average score 

  • planting a cover crop 

  • implementing reduced tillage or no-till 

  • reducing inputs such as nutrients, fuel and chemicals 

Those management practices offer side benefits. “Cover crops grow biomass, help reduce erosion, preserve water quality and provide weed suppression,” Estadt says. “Set yourself up. If you have never done these practices, I encourage producers to go to meetings, talk to experts, go to the no-till council — educate yourself first.” 

Beyond capturing CO2 in the soil through no-till and cover crops, agriculture has other sources of greenhouse gases. “Nitrous oxide is really the biggest contributor to a CI; it’s not so much carbon dioxide,” Estadt says. “If we can manage our nitrogen better and use less of it or make a change when you put it on, it will go a long way.” 

Get help with score 

It’s rare to find a farmer eager to push more numbers, but it’s a smart move to begin thinking about how to calculate your farm’s CI score. One is at the American Coalition for Ethanol.

Read more about:

CarbonCarbon CreditsData

About the Author(s)

Jennifer Kiel

Editor, Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer

Jennifer was hired as editor of Michigan Farmer in 2003, and in 2015, she began serving a dual role as editor of Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer. Both those publications are now online only, while the print version is American Agriculturist, which covers Michigan, Ohio, the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic. She is the co-editor with Chris Torres.

Prior to joining Farm Progress, she served three years as the manager of communications and development for the American Farmland Trust Central Great Lakes Regional Office in Michigan, and as director of communications with the Michigan Agri-Business Association. Previously, she was the communications manager at Michigan Farm Bureau's state headquarters. She also lists 10 years of experience at six different daily and weekly Michigan newspapers on her resume.

She has been a member of American Agricultural Editors’ Association (now Agricultural Communicators Network) since 2003. She has won numerous writing and photography awards through that organization, which named her a Master Writer in 2006 and Writer of Merit in 2017.

She is a board member for the Michigan 4-H Foundation, Clinton County Conservation District and Barn Believers.

Jennifer and her husband, Chris, live in St. Johns, Mich., and collectively have five grown children and four grandchildren.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like