Buying electric implements for the right reason

Every month, another e-tractor announcement comes across our desks here at The Western Producer. Environmental factors drive this trend, along with energy efficiency, lower maintenance, noise level and motor longevity.

But even when purchase prices come down, will it ever be practical to run a big battery powered 4×4 to replace your Versatile?

Steve Heckeroth thinks so.

“Yes, bigger tractors will be made and in fact are being made right now, but they will be very expensive until battery costs comes down,” he said.

“They’re starting to make a 70 h.p. electric tractor in Europe with a five to six hour run time and a 100 kWh battery. It still costs over US$120,000.”

The e-advocates say technology and manufacturing efficiency will overcome the cost factor in time, but battery run time may remain a bigger issue. That, and the fact that nearly all e-tractor projects tie themselves to “free solar power.”

And that might be the flaw in their logic. The e-tractor should be one topic. Charging the battery is a distinctly separate topic.

It’s an unfortunate coincidence that solar panels for re-charging tractor batteries turn sunlight into electrical power only while the sun shines. Those are the same hours your e-tractor should be in the field working.

With most e-tractors currently in production, a battery charge lasts only four to eight hours, approximately half the number of daily hours the tractor works during a busy season. If you have two battery packs, one can power the tractor during the morning shift while the other pack is on the solar charger. If the first battery runs down before noon, you can always send your diesel tractor back to the yard to pick up the fresh battery.

Fine, but what if you get two weeks of cloudy weather at seeding time? Your economic model based on “free energy” goes out the window, especially if you start paying the grid a dime per kWh to charge your batteries.

“Grid” is the most dreaded word for followers of sun power. The prudent e-tractor buyer will not tie his return on investment scheme to “free energy” but will instead buy for the other benefits, of which there are many.

Some farmers feel the environmental factor is a red herring when it comes to diesels in agriculture. People who have visited North American factories often notice tractors, combines and sprayers that have no emission control systems. These are machines built specifically for export to developing nations.

But doesn’t the Earth have only one atmosphere wrapping around the whole big ball of soil? Is it fair to North American farmers that growers in other parts of the world can buy lower-priced higher-efficiency machines?

The ratio of farm diesels to over-the-road highway diesels is incredibly skewed, yet off-road diesels are subject to the same standards as highway tractors. The ratio becomes even more off-kilter when you compare the annual number of hours for a farm diesel to the annual number of hours for a highway engine.

It’s not likely many farmers will buy an electric tractor for environmental reasons. When the e-tractor makes economic sense, the orders will start to flow.

The other motivating factor in favour of electricity might be reliability in the field. Farmers get their hackles up when they talk about their brand new tractor, sprayer or combine going dead in the field because of a glitch somewhere in the ECU or any related device.

E-manufacturers will go a long way toward electrifying farmers’ equipment lineup if they can prove their products are more reliable than current state-of-the-art diesel systems.

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