By Katherine Loving
It’s no surprise that sensitivity to fuel costs and a growing desire for energy independence are driving innovation in electric vehicles. Similarly, these same factors are creating increased interest in electric farming equipment.
Running a farm is traditionally dependent on oil and gas to keep machinery operating. Fuel costs impact the bottom line of agricultural production and are a major driver of food prices and farming revenue.
One significant new change for farming equipment is the trend of switching fossil fuel-powered equipment to electric equipment.
Electric tractors are now commercially available from multiple manufacturers and niche, electric-only companies. There are many benefits of replacing diesel motors with electric motors. Highly efficient electric motors can operate at 90% thermal efficiency, which helps provide cost savings over time, compared to diesel motors that operate at 30%-40% thermal efficiency.
Challenges in battery life
But there are significant barriers to electric farming technologies. Electric tractors cost about a third more than traditional tractors. Battery life for electric tractors typically ranges from three to six hours depending on hauling weight and workload, which can be a nonstarter for many larger farms where tractors are expected to run all day doing heavy-duty work.
While battery life can be problematic, advancements have been made over the last few years. Some tractors can carry two batteries, allowing for a mid-day switch without returning the tractor to a charging point. At this stage of development, electric tractors are likely better suited to smaller farms or vineyards.
Additional electric and renewable options for the farm
Utility terrain vehicles tend to look more like their gas-powered counterparts in terms of capability and price, making them a more accessible entry into electric equipment on the farm.
The future of farm electrification may be focused on renewable energy, either in the form of solar power or waste heat recovery systems. There is ongoing research into the feasibility of placing solar panels on farms coupled with a battery storage system, then using that system as a fuel source for electric tractor batteries. Solar power is already being used to directly power autonomous precision sprayers for row crops.
There are still limitations on the heavy-duty use of electric farming equipment. Still, research and development will continue until these electric technologies are on par with their diesel or gas counterparts.
With more time and investment, electric farming equipment will likely become more widespread in the coming years.
Katherine Loving writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives.