Are we ready for electric tractors?

Car and truck manufacturers are falling off the fossil fuel bandwagon in droves and jumping on the electric train.

Now add tractors to that list.

Every month, another e-tractor announcement comes across our desks. Environmental factors drive this trend, along with energy efficiency, lower maintenance, lower noise level and motor longevity. There are more e-tractors than we can keep track of, but we’ve compiled a list of some that fit the bill for sustainability.

JD GridCON

Let’s start with the Big Daddy of them all, the 400 horsepower JD GridCON. This tractor is not a hybrid and it has no hassle with batteries. The 300 kilowatts of power come to the GridCON through a 1,000 metre extension cord connected to the grid or an off-field generator. A reel on the tractor rolls the cable in and out. The cable is guided by a robotic arm to prevent the tractor from running over it.

It uses a 700 volt DC bus for electric power distribution onboard and for auxiliary implements. It uses a cooling infrastructure for off-board electrical use. Total efficiency of the drive train is around 85 percent. A 100 kilowatt electric motor runs the IVT transmission. There’s an auxiliary outlet for implements powered by an electric motor up to 200 kW.

GridCON autonomously follows prescribed routes in the field at speeds up to 12 m.p.h. It can also be guided manually with a remote control when manoeuvring the tractor to enter a field. Empty weight is 8.5 tonnes, which is about the same as a 6195R but with double the power. Deere engineers say it will save about 50 percent in operating costs compared to battery powered tractors.

Solectrac

Two California-built all-battery powered tractors are finally in full production. While the biggest is only 40 horsepower, these are serious tractors that may foretell the future of farm equipment.

The all-electric 40 h.p. eUtility tractor is based on a 1950s Ford built in India. Solectrac is able to buy the bare tractor without an engine, so it can create a brand new electric tractor with no used components for North American customers. One tractor has already been sold to a farmer in Ontario. | Solectrac photo

The tractors are built by Solectrac, owned by inventor Steve Heckeroth, who has been doing electric conversions on cars, trucks, race cars and tractors for 25 years. He said there are three main reasons to take electric tractors seriously: simplicity, energy efficiency and longevity.

“The electric motor has only one moving part, unlike small diesel engines, which have over 300 moving parts,” Heckeroth said, adding that Solectrac tractors are not halfway compromise hybrids but true electric machines that get their power from the sun or the grid, whichever is closest.

Neither tractor uses hydraulics. Instead, Heckeroth uses electric linear actuators. The ones he installs provide 1,000 pounds of dynamic load and 3,000 lb. static loads. He uses linear actuators because they are 20 times more efficient than hydraulics.

The eUtility and eFarmer are two-wheel drive only, but engineers are working on compact four-wheel drive electric tractors. Each tractor carries a price tag of US$40,000. Because production numbers are still limited, both tractors are available on a first to deposit basis. One e-tractor has already been sold and delivered to a farmer in Ontario.

The eUtility is a 40 h.p. yard tractor that accepts all Category 1, 540 r.p.m. power take-off implements on the rear three-point hitch, except those requiring hydraulics. An optional hydraulic pump can be installed for $3,000 for legacy implements that require hydraulics. For that price, a dedicated electricity believer might instead consider converting the implement to electric.

“The eUtility is actually a converted new 1950s Ford tractor made in a factory in India that was taken over after the British were kicked out in 1948,” Heckeroth said.

“I am able to buy only the parts I need and then add the motor, controller and batteries. I had to go to India because it’s one of the few places that still makes geared transmissions. These transmissions work the best for electric tractors. Gear reduction is necessary to keep the motor in the most efficient range of about 2,000 r.p.m. It has four gears with a high and low range, which covers everything from creep to 25 m.p.h.

On his eUtility, a single 30 kWh onboard battery pack provides five to eight hours of run time, depending on loads. It can carry two battery packs. The Level 2 quick charge gives an 80 percent charge for one pack in three hours. Two packs can receive a full charge overnight.

The integrated battery management system protects the batteries during charging and discharging. Batteries are expected to last about 10 years, depending on the number of operating cycles and depth of discharge.

Exchangeable battery packs are available to keep the tractor running through the full work day. These smaller 20 kWh packs can be mounted on the rear hitch to balance the weight of the optional front loader or carried in the optional front loader to balance the weight of heavy implements mounted on the rear hitch.

The second tractor is the 20 kWh eFarmer, which features high visibility for row crop farms at a fraction of the cost of diesel fuel tractors. The 30 h.p. eFarmer is basically just a tube frame with the necessary components attached. A simple joystick controls steering, speed and brakes.

Harvest

Introduced to the North American public this spring by Motivo Engineering in California, the Harvest tractor is simply a big battery on wheels. The complex electrical system takes power in through a variety of renewable energy sources, such as solar panels, water wheels, wind turbines or even intermittent electrical grids. It stores electrical power on-board and delivers it when and where required, putting power out to a large number of electrical tools and farm implements. It operates in AC or DC modes.

At the end of the working day the Harvest tractors are parked at the power shed for re-charge from the grid. The units can also be charged by a windmill, water wheel or solar panels. Ideally, each unit comes with a back-up power cell. | Motivo photo

Motivo calls it a Mobile Power Conversion and Distribution System, which was created to help developing countries meet increasing food demands without depending on costly petroleum fuels.

Each Harvest unit working in a small test fleet in India reduced operating costs by $2,516 per month compared to small conventional diesel tractors in the same power range. Small tractors in this power range are a necessary part of food production throughout the developing world.

The power take-off is just one example of the engineers’ thinking. The 540 r.p.m. Type 1 p.t.o. can drive any tool designed for low horsepower p.t.o. When it’s time to charge up for the night, the operator can hook the waterwheel to the p.t.o. and back the Harvest down to a flowing stream, at which point the p.t.o. function is reversed so it charges the tractor.

The transit range on a fully charged battery is 70 kilometres empty and 40 km carrying a 3,300 lb. load. Pulling a plow, the Harvest can do five acres before running out of steam, or three acres running a rotary tiller.

Re-charge time is four hours using a dozen 300-watt panels. Charging from a grid with a small five-amp circuit takes 13 hours, or five hours using a larger 15-amp circuit. The power modules are removable so one pack can be working in the field while the other is charging. Given the large number of sunny days around the equator, solar charging will be the most common source of power.

In terms of nutrition and food safety, the lack of refrigeration is a major issue in rural areas of developing countries. The Harvest unit can chill 265 gallons of milk in a day. It can transport 26 gallons about 55 km on the tractor itself. Using a refrigerator on the trailer, 264 gallons of milk can be transported 30 km.

Pumping water, a farmer can move 15,000 gallons using a half-horse pump for 33 hours, which consumes 375 watts. Or he can move 45,000 gallons of water using a five h.p. pump for three hours., which consumes 3.7 kW.

The tractor weighs 1,650 lb. ready to work. Each power module weighs 650 lb. Lift capacity at the hitch is 1,715 lb. Top speed is limited to 18 m.p.h.

Monarch

There’s a new electric tractor on the block. Motivo, creators of the Harvest electric tractor, announced they have formed a spinoff company to produce a new larger electric tractor named Monarch.

In an email interview, Motivo engineer Dean Case said the new tractor is “completely different from the Harvest. No shared parts. Just lessons learned incorporated into the new tractor.”

The original Harvest had been in research and development for five years in California and India. Engineers felt they had learned enough from Harvest to take the concept to the next stage. They announced on Dec. 19 that the new Monarch Tractor Co. had been incorporated and was being funded as a separate entity, with additional founders and investors.

Monarch Tractor will focus on developing and commercializing the core Harvest technology into a next-generation tractor that’s smart, sustainable and robust. Monarch Tractor will also deploy services through a comprehensive automation and software stack.

The Monarch Tractor will be the most powerful tractor within the compact class. It incorporates advanced data analytics and alerts, an available eco-system of smart implements and automated reporting for tracking and compliance.

Monarch Tractor CEO Praveen Penmetsa said: “Ever since our work with the Harvest tractor, people have been asking us when we would bring our technology to market. We looked at a wide variety of options, including licensing, before we formed the Monarch Tractor company.”

Monarch Tractor is working to utilize 21st century technology to empower farmers by enabling profitable implementation of sustainable and organic practices. The Monarch tractor platform combines mechanization, automation, and data analysis to enhance a farmer’s existing operations, alleviate labor shortages, and maximize yields.

The Monarch Tractor Concept will be showcased at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, California Feb. 11-13, 2020. More technology details will be revealed at Ag Expo.

Belarus MTZ hybrid

The MTZ 3623 is a 360 h.p. diesel/electric hybrid.

“The update is that the factory started producing a Tier 3 version of the Electric Drive tractor, with Caterpillar engine,” MTZ Canada rep Arie Prilik said in an email.

“We are working with the factory to produce a Tier 4 version for U.S.A./Canada.”

The Belarus MTZ 3623 is a 360 horsepower diesel/electric hybrid. According to MTZ Canada rep Arie Prilik, the factory will produce a Tier 4 version for the United States and Canada. | MTZ Canada photo

Prilik said the hybrid combination reduces fuel consumption by 15 percent in field work and up to 30 percent on the road.

The electric motors provide better starting torque and working torque. Electric motors provide infinite speed selection in two ranges. In the field, speed range is .01 to 11 m.p.h. Road speed is 32 m.p.h. The on-board 270 kW power generator can drive electric motors on implements.

Prilik said farmers appreciate the fact that the tractor owner also owns the Windows diagnostic software.

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