By Doug Graves
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Like them or not, electric vehicles (EVs) are gaining traction across the nation. Proponents of these vehicles boast they’re cleaner for the environment and save on fuel and maintenance costs. However, the cost of these vehicles remains the largest obstacle to ownership. The average new electric car costs $50,000-$70,000, about $30,000 more than a regular 4-door sedan.
Like their auto-making counterparts, agricultural equipment manufacturers are developing electric and autonomous machines to replace today’s diesel tractors and combines. These electric tractors have problems that must be solved before widespread adoption.
“The critical piece of the pie for greater adoption of electric vehicles in farm settings is charging infrastructure, followed closely by durability and reliability issues,” said Scott Miller, associate dean for industry partnerships at Ohio University’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology. “Farmers will not accept things that they cannot fix quickly, cheaply and easily.”
Modern agriculture depends on a fleet of heavy-duty vehicles and machinery, from pickup trucks and small utility vehicles to massive tractors and combines that can weigh from a few tons up to as much as 15 tons, plus attachments. All that weight, along with dawn-to-dusk workdays and multiple worksites, adds to the challenges of electrification.
“Today the reason why most agricultural machinery is run by diesel is because of the high power-to-weight ratios when we look at energy storage in the form of diesel fuel,” said Scott Shearer, chair of the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at The Ohio State University. “Large equipment can work all day without having to refill.”
Clean energy transition is the main push behind this “go electric on the farm” effort. A typical diesel-powered tractor emits 53 tons of carbon dioxide every year. So, a single farmer switching to electric would bring those greenhouse gas emissions to zero.
There are about five million tractors in the U.S., and nearly all of them run on fossil fuels. Multiple companies, though, have already been working on these electric-powered prototypes.
Japan-based Kubota began introducing concept electric models in January 2020. Their prototypes allow for autonomous operation and feature an onboard solar battery. Monarch Tractor of California offers a tractor that is equipped with an electric drivetrain capable of providing 40 HP of continuous power and short-duration peak power up to 70 HP.
Taiwan’s Foxconn, the world’s largest contract electronics maker, announced in August that it will build driverless electronic tractors for Monarch Tractor at its Lordstown, Ohio, facility starting in early 2023. California-based Solectrac already has been offering small 30- and 40-HP-equivalent tractors and farm utility vehicles.
Steve Heckeroth, founder of Solectrac, designed and built an electric tractor 30 years ago. Since then, he’s converted a diesel tractor to electric power, custom-built electric tractors, and assembled an experimental electric tractor for Ford New Holland as early as 1995.
Solentrac has sold about two dozen of its battery-powered tractors since 2018 and has accumulated about $1 million worth of back orders because of pandemic-related issues.
“The biggest problem with electric cars is the weight of the batteries,” Heckeroth said. “I realized quickly, though, that weight on a tractor is actually an asset that improves traction.”
Not everyone agrees that traction is a good thing.
Dale Arnold, director of energy, utility and local government policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said that adding bigger batteries isn’t a solution. Adding that additional weight can compact soil more than existing equipment does. The result, he said, could be less room for young plants’ roots to grow.
“Compacted soil also can interfere with no-till methods that many farmers have been using,” Arnold said.
John Deere has no plan to offer fully battery-powered combines or large tractors.
“It simply isn’t feasible,” said Jennifer Hartmann, the director of public relations for John Deere. “While the company sells some small electric vehicles, there is no plan to offer fully battery-operated combines and large tractors.”
By 2026, John Deere hopes to introduce an electric option in each Turf and Compact Utility Tractor category. These are in the “small ag” department, which the company defines as having less than 165 engine HP for tractors. This does not include combines or large tractors.
“The challenge agriculture faces, particularly in the U.S., is balancing the capabilities of electric power and the need for power at scale and size,” Hartmann said. “In the foreseeable future, a blend of electric and combustion power, including clean biofuels, will likely be required to meet these challenges.”
Some relatively small electric-powered tractors are already available from companies like Fendt, Rigitrac and Escorts. Those in the ag industry call these “baby steps.”
“It’s a big step to go from prototypes and limited applications to widespread adoption,” Miller said. “Farm equipment may only get used a few weeks a year, and those periods of use often run up to 15 hours a day for many days on end. It does a farm producer no good if the battery runs out in the middle of a 1,000-acre field.”
Added Shearer, “If batteries provide only about 15 percent of the energy that a full tank of diesel does, you’re still going to have to stop six or seven times a day to swap out batteries. With spring planting time at a premium, such stops would result in lost productive time could run into the thousands of dollars.”
Experts say that solar arrays on the farm could help by keeping an extra charging system docked somewhere in the fields, thus enabling the farmer to swap out a batter without delay.
Diesel power is dominate to this day. However, according to analysts at the USDA, the market for electric vehicles in the agriculture, construction and mining industries could grow to $100 million annually.