Agricultural equipment manufacturers are developing autonomous, electric machines to replace current diesel tractors and harvesters, but problems need to be addressed before widespread adoption.
The seeds are sown for the electrification of agricultural vehicles, but as major manufacturers begin to develop electric prototypes, they face significant logistical challenges to replace diesel machines in the field.
“The critical piece of the cake for increased EV adoption in agricultural settings is charging infrastructure, closely followed by durability and reliability issues,” said Scott Miller, associate dean for industry associations at the Russ College of Engineering and Technology at Ohio University. “Farmers will not accept things that they cannot fix quickly, cheaply and easily.”
Modern agriculture depends on a fleet of vehicles and heavy machinery, from pickup trucks and small utility vehicles to huge tractors and combines that can weigh from a few tons to 15 tons, plus accessories. All that weight, along with the hours of work from sunrise to sunset and multiple workplaces, add to the challenges of electrification.
“Today, the reason most agricultural machinery runs on diesel is because of the high power-to-weight ratio, when you consider energy storage in the form of diesel fuel,” explains Scott Shearer, director of the Ohio State University Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering. Large teams “can work all day without refilling.”
Although diesel now dominates, the electric vehicle market in construction, agriculture and mining could grow to 100 billion annually, according to UK-based analysts Peter Harrop and Michael Dent of IDTechEx. It is not yet clear what combination of incentives, regulations, and market forces could drive the transition to electric farm equipment, but countries will have to address the sector to successfully reduce emissions on a scale large enough to avoid worst-case scenarios. climate change in this century.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released on August 9, underscores the need for immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Energy Information Administration, agriculture accounted for about 5% of America’s industrial energy use last year.
Technological innovation could also stimulate demand for electric vehicles on farms. Small electric tractors could be especially useful for family farms in developing regions that still use non-mechanized methods for farming, according to a report published in August 2021 in the Journal of Energy Storage.
Larger companies that make agricultural vehicles tend to sell to world markets. So developments in other regions will likely affect the range of product offerings around the world.
Additionally, farmers in Ohio and elsewhere could be attracted to the idea of substituting diesel for renewable energy on-site, especially those who have already rented part of their land for solar or wind power to increase their income. As the costs of renewables and battery storage fall, electric vehicles could end up reducing the energy costs of farms.
On the drawing board and in the field
Aware of the transition to clean energy, several companies have already been working on electrically powered prototypes.
John Deere tractor models would allow autonomous operation, increasing efficiency and precision. Power-by-wire could even eliminate the need for on-board batteries, so an electric version would not have to weigh more than its fossil fuel counterpart. A John Deere spokesperson declined to be interviewed for this story.
The Japanese company Kubota also introduced concept models in January 2020. Like Deere models, they would allow autonomous operation. And the triangular arrangement of the tracks could minimize weight and adjust for height in the field. The company’s tractor concept also featured an on-board solar battery.
California-based Solectrac already offers small 30- and 40-horsepower tractors and agricultural utility vehicles. Other relatively small tractor options come from Fendt, Rigitrac, Escorts, and others. Meanwhile, almost all aerial drones are electric.
Solar power could benefit a range of farm machinery beyond tractor loading, according to an April 2021 report in the Journal of Cleaner Production.
“We are starting to see some agricultural sprayers that are actually powered by PV,” Shearer said. An autonomous robot for weed control from the Swiss company ecoRobotix aims to use 95% less herbicides, for example.
The research is also focused on small autonomous electric vehicles on land to detect the environment of plants. But navigating the field can be tricky, according to Shearer. Challenges include working through rows of plants, such as picket formations used in cornfields, and dealing with tree canopies.
But it’s a big step to move from prototypes and limited applications to mainstream adoption.
“Farm equipment is only used for a few weeks a year,” and those periods of use typically last “up to 15 hours a day for many days,” explains Miller of the University of Ohio. “It’s no use to an agricultural producer when the battery dies in the middle of a 1,000-acre field.”
If the batteries only provide 15% of the energy that a full tank of diesel provides, “you’re still going to have to stop six or seven times a day” to change the batteries, said Shearer of the University of Ohio. With spring planting time, the opportunity cost for lost productive time at those stops could run into the thousands of dollars.
Adding larger batteries is not the solution either. The added weight can compact the soil more than existing equipment can. The result could be less room for the roots of young plants to grow, said Dale Arnold, director of energy policy, utilities and local government for the Federation of Ohio Farm Bureau.
Compacted soil can also interfere with the no-tillage methods that many farmers have been using, Arnold added. No-till agriculture leaves more organic matter and nutrients in the soil. This practice also allows more water to infiltrate the soil, reducing runoff and nutrient contamination.
The key is trying to “find that balance” that allows the machinery to do the job efficiently, without adding more steps or hurting farm performance, Arnold said. Also, many farmers’ fields are not contiguous.
“There are times when a large team a large tractor or a combine or a large cultivator can leave the base and not return for several days or a couple of weeks, depending on the complications and the activities that are carried out there” Arnold said.
Arnold’s own family continues to farm the Brown Township property in central Ohio that once belonged to his grandfather. The family also acquired farms in Harrison Township and Union Township, he said. Typically, the farm team worked on a farm property. Then he would travel to the next property and the next, before returning to his base days or weeks later. The cycle would be repeated for the next necessary tasks.
“You’re always on that rotation show,” Arnold said. “Many farming families, that’s what they do.”
So even if large electric farm equipment could run for a whole day on a battery charge, it wouldn’t necessarily return to base of operations at night. This situation would increase the costs and challenges of the charging infrastructure. And in any case, more stations would be needed, according to Arnold, because lighter trucks or other off-road utility vehicles would also need to be charged.
“The key issue will be advances in battery technology,” Shearer said. In his opinion, even increasing battery power to half the energy supplied by the equivalent weight of diesel could be “a game changer”.
Meanwhile, registrations for Ford’s first fully electric pickup opened in May with the introduction of the F-150 Lightning. Lordstown Motors’ electric truck project could also be a big winner, according to Arnold, if the company can overcome its financial woes. On August 11, the company announced its plans to start limited production in September.
“We think it’s going to be a very competitive market,” Arnold said, noting that almost every farmer has a truck, as well as smaller utility vehicles.
Wi-Fi connectivity is an additional challenge. The team’s navigation and autonomous controls, on-board diagnostics and other devices “will depend on good high-speed communications with base stations or the Internet,” said Miller of Ohio University. Manufacturers are also likely to turn to cloud-managed solutions and software-as-a-service business models, he added.
“As we know, rural broadband is a huge limiting factor for rural communities,” Miller said, “so these types of models will take time to implement and may require creative partnerships with major technology companies to overcome these connectivity hurdles. The Reimagine Appalachia coalition has also called for major improvements to broadband and electrical infrastructure in rural areas as part of a plan to shift reliance on coal and natural gas. The group is pushing for funds to come from federal infrastructure grants.
Meanwhile, niche markets for smaller vehicles and equipment could expand more rapidly. And larger equipment manufacturers will refine and test prototypes to make sure they perform as well in the field as they do on the drawing board.
A specific timeframe for the widespread adoption of electric vehicles on farms has not yet been defined. Climate advocates want emissions reductions to happen sooner rather than later. And if the world happens to have net greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades, equipment manufacturers will want to continue to meet the needs of farmers.
Ultimately, “farmers are interested in tools that help them increase yield and productivity,” Miller said.”The hopeful positive is that these tools have the potential to transform the way and the way that agricultural producers manage their land and crops, increasing efficiency and using their limited resources in the smartest way possible.” TAGGED: agricultureelectric vehiclesheavy electric vehiclesICYMIOhiosyndication