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Electric tractors emerge as viable alternatives for some operations
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Electric tractors emerge as viable alternatives for some operations

AGCO’s e100 tractor

AGCO’s e100 tractor — which has equivalent of 100 horsepower — is under development. A working prototype is shown here.

There may be a day when farmers will no longer hear the roar of internal combustion engines or wear the faint scent of diesel fuel.

Electric tractors are in their infancy, but manufacturers are taking a serious look at them. They face some impediments, acceptance not the least among them.

“That is the main challenge for dealers to get these out to growers,” said Tom Turner, a strategic marketing manager at AGCO. “They’re not as readily accepted, especially in rural environments.”

Nevertheless, AGCO is among several major ag equipment companies gearing up for production of electric-powered tractors.

Its e100 model, under the Fendt brand, is a 100-horsepower tractor under development. Turner would not disclose when it will be available commercially, but did say it will be sooner rather than later.

“We hope to be under production in the near future,” he said.

Others companies are also looking at the potential for battery-operated tractors.

John Deere unveiled a futuristic prototype of a 300-horsepower model a few years ago at the farm expo Agritechnica, at Hanover, Germany. Deere declined to comment on the vehicle for this article, and the company has at least publicly pulled back from developing large-scale electric tractors for now.

In the field

But the electric tractor does exist commercially already. California-based Solectrac is marketing several models.

“We’ve been selling them for three years, and I’ve been building them for 30,” said founder Steve Heckeroth.

Heckeroth, who has an architectural degree, has devoted his life to renewable power. He began designing solar homes in 1970 and turned his attention to vehicles 20 years later.

The company’s most powerful unit boasts the equivalent of 70 horsepower. Electric tractors are limited in size and are used largely on small-acreage operations. Massive, large-field units would be untenable, according to Heckeroth.

“The size of the battery pack you would need limits them,” he said. “With John Deere’s 300-horsepower prototype, it would last only about 15 minutes without a charge. It’s not feasible. I’m headed in the other direction. Fossil fuels are becoming a bigger and bigger issue, people switching to electric cars, and Tesla’s market cap is bigger than the rest of the industry put together.”

The small tractors in development and production, on the other hand, can run an average of seven to 10 hours without a charge.

Cody Allen agrees that technology doesn’t exist to run large farm vehicles strictly on battery power. However, there are applications where it fits.

“Batteries have weight, so there is always a tradeoff,” said Allen, a professor of agricultural engineering at the University of Illinois. “There are more specialized applications, like in vineyards.”

Hybrid model

He sees more application in hybridization, much like the tractor version of a Toyota Prius.

“There are opportunities there in the near term for heavy-duty equipment,” Allen said. “If you could decouple the engine from the drivetrain, you could increase efficiency. That’s in the near term. In applications where full electric is not feasible yet, some of these technologies are there.”

A marriage of battery power and autonomy may be a more promising combination. Applications for them abound, especially on fruit and vegetable operations.

“We’re entering this interesting time. Autonomy and electrification are going to collide,” Allen said. “The reallocation of some labor could affect the feasibility of some of those electrification solutions.”

Such technology is already in the works. Monarch Tractor is gearing up to produce a line of self-operated electric tractors. Autonomous electric vehicles with the power equivalent of 40 to 70 horsepower can serve as “companion tractors” doing various tasks, said a company spokesperson.

“A green tractor can be doing tasks in the field that reduces exposure to the farmer,” the spokesperson said of the line of vehicles in the California company’s pipeline.

The machines will largely be used in vineyards and vegetable operations.

“We had 14 days of non-stop fires, then this pandemic,” the spokesperson said. “You have a 70-horsepower fieldworker out there who is not putting people in harm’s way.”

The tractors are being designed to operate with or without drivers. They will also feature technology allowing workers to use hand gestures to control speed, direction and tasks on the farm. That can help with migrant laborers, many who do not speak English.

Advantages & challenges

Large or small, electric tractors share some advantages over their combustion engine counterparts.

“The biggest advantages are very quiet operation and instant torque,” said AGCO’s Turner. “Obviously, there are no diesel fuel or fluids to worry about. The most prevalent one is no emissions. The e100 will be a zero-emission vehicle.”

Ease of maintenance is another benefit. Since there are no moving parts in the motor, little maintenance is required.

Aside from the limits on size, there are other challenges. Among them is charging time and battery life. Farm infrastructure is another consideration.

“You need to install some kind of charging station on the farm,” Allen said. “They need to prove themselves to farmers. In cold climates, batteries don’t like cold weather. There are things we need to iron out and show our customers that this technology is reliable. It’s not as George Jetson as you might think.”

One solution in the future could involve fuel cells.

“Charging infrastructure is a more challenging aspect for off-road vehicles because you’re not always near the grid,” Allen said.

“That’s why you’re hearing about fuel cells. There is a lot of government funding going into funding fuel cells. That might be a path. But we’re a ways out.”

Widespread use of electric farm vehicles could also affect the used-vehicle market.

“Electric tractors will also have an interesting effect on the used market,” Allen said. “Engines last a long time in vehicles. Batteries degrade over time. That will be a factor in the used market.”

Farmers in California may have little choice in the future. The state has mandated that no gas-fired vehicles may be produced in the state by 2035. It is not clear whether the executive order signed last fall by Gov. Gavin Newsom extends to farm vehicles.

Advocates of electric tractors point to the environmental benefits. Some see them as a move toward a paradigm shift in agriculture, moving away from large farms to smaller operations. They see it as a positive.

“Things are moving in that direction,” Heckeroth said. “We need shorter supply chains and smaller farms serving local communities. We want to be smaller, not larger.”

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.

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