Small and mighty, these electrics spark imagination

Electric farm machinery is finding its way into a few special fields, but the broadacre future might be full of them

Electric-powered farm equipment is inevitable for many agricultural applications, especially those with many stop-and-start duty cycles.

Significant advancements in electrification are needed before diesel tanks can be removed from machines like combines and high-horsepower tractors that typically run at a set duty cycle all day long.

However, the technology is already available for compact electric tractor offerings capable of competing with their combustion-based counterparts.

The North American agricultural tractor market is expected to reach US$20 billion by 2023, and the largest segment for agricultural tractors is below 40 horsepower, according to analysts Research And Markets.

Compact electric tractors will soon take a big bite out of this market segment.

The rise of compact electric tractors is largely due to improved accessibility of components such as batteries and compatible hydraulic pumps built to withstand tough conditions in the agriculture sector.

There are already two North American equipment manufacturers with compact electric tractors available in 2021, Solectrac and Monarch.

Solectrac sells a 30 h.p., four-wheel drive compact electric tractor, a 40-h.p. utility tractor, and a 30-h.p. eFarmer that has … a belly-hitch designed for row-crop cultivation.

The tractors are based on the design of 1950s era Ford tractors, but they’ve been outfitted with new electrification technology.

The company is located in northern California where it imports and assembles tractors manufactured by Escorts Limited in India, and then fits them with batteries manufactured in China.

Solectrac chief executive officer, Steve Heckeroth, said they are also working on a 70 h.p. tractor for the vineyard and orchard markets.

He said the tractors can take the place of a diesel tractor in the same horsepower range and are cheaper to run and are much simpler machines because the engine has only one moving part.

To help solve the problem of battery run time Solectrac patented exchangeable battery packs, that can be used to extend run time or can be quickly changed out with a charged battery.

“Battery cost is driving the price to be a little bit higher than diesel, but battery costs are coming down quickly and with our partnership with Ideanomics we have access to the Chinese markets where most of the batteries (are built),” Heckeroth said.

“We use lithium, iron, phosphate, which is a chemistry that doesn’t burn, so it’s a very safe chemistry, and we’ll have eyes on the ground over in China with Ideanomics to pick the least expensive and best quality battery and be able to buy in quantity as we ramp up production and lower the cost to hopefully below diesel.”

Ideanomics recently purchased 22 percent Solectrac shares.

The company’s 40 h.p. tractor uses 600 amps at 48 volts, has a category-one, 540 r.p.m. power take-off that can deliver 25 h.p., and a battery run time of four to eight hours depending on load.

It takes four hours to charge the tractor with a 220-volt connection and is rated to operate from -22 to 55 C.

Heckeroth said a battery warmer would enable the tractor to work in colder conditions.

The tractor’s category 1 three-point hitch is powered by 48-volt electric actuators that can lift 4,500 pounds, while the front loader can lift 1,500 pounds.

It has a four gear transmission, a high-and-low range with a maximum speed of 20 m.p.h.

Heckeroth said automation technology is quickly emerging and it will make swarm systems possible, that have many small units replacing one large tractor.

“The next step is first getting the tractor mechanically functioning as well as any diesel tractor, and then the next step is automation. Automation is much easier to do with electric than it is with diesel,” Heckeroth said.

The base price for the 40 h.p. model is $45,000.

Monarch Tractors is taking orders for fall delivery of its compact electric tractor, and it’s capable of performing some field operations autonomously.

The company has a tractor that ranges from 40 h.p. of continuous power, and short duration peak power up to 70 h.p.

In many ways there is little difference between a combustion-based tractor and the Monarch offering.

“We have partnered up with existing tractor companies that build tractors in volume,” said Praveen Penmetsa, chief executive officer of Monarch.

“We use their components along with components from the automotive industry, and of course there’s some custom components that we have put in,” Penmetsa said.

The company uses a sub-assembly model, where it gets components and assemblies from around the world and then does the final assembly in Livermore, California.

Monarch Tractors kept a traditional tractor transmission to help the electric motor and battery stay in their maximum efficiency ranges.

“It’s a fully automated manual transmission what I mean by that is it’s not a hydrostatic…. We actually can shift the transmission completely by wire but it’s a manual gears with clutches,” Penmetsa said.

He said the company uses a manual transmission instead of hydrostatic because they are not as efficient and would require bigger batteries and motors in the tractor.

“We took an existing manual tractor transmission and we made it completely automated and then we plug that into our Monarch Electric propulsion system,” Penmetsa said.

Monarch Tractors have hydraulics, category one or category two three-point-hitch, and a 540 r.p.m. p.t.o., so just about any existing tractor implements farmers have for this class of tractor is compatible.

Monarch Tractor’s 40 horsepower electric, autonomous tractor. | Monarch photo

“Everything is standard. If you actually take a blindfold and go around to the back of a tractor and remove the blindfold it looks like a normal tractor,” Penmetsa said.

A front-end loader is not yet available, but is under development.

He said some implement companies want to switch to electric hydraulics for their function controls, and Monarch Tractors are ready to support these systems.

Under light use, the battery will last eight to 10 hours, while it will be depleted in about six hours under a heavy workload.

It takes about four to five hours to recharge the tractor when using a 220-volt outlet.

There is also an option of buying an extra battery that can be changed out in about 10 minutes.

The batteries come with a 10-year warranty.

There is also an onboard inverter that a welder can plug into for in-field repairs.

Autonomous hardware and software technology come in the base model, that enable driver-assist and driver-optional operations.

“We have a number of features like row following. The tractor will automatically follow a row and control your implement. We have a feature where you as a driver can train it to do exactly what you want to do as you go down that row and it will repeat that operation,” Penmetsa said.

The tractor comes with everything needed to drive it much like a compact utility tractor from the 1960s, but it also has cameras, field sensors, a couple RTK GPS antennas, radio and wifi signal receivers and software that keeps track of field operations it can later repeat.

The autonomous technology was built so it can continue to operate even when GPS signals are temporarily lost.

Penmetsa said growers who are interested in how an electric or automated tractor can help their farm, can start by using a Monarch tractor for a low-risk operation, such as mowing.

Once they are comfortable, they can move the platform to higher-risk operations like spraying.

“The autonomy part results in labour savings for you. So what I mean by that is, you know, you as a tractor driver can now be back at the barn and manage a fleet of five to seven tractors,” Penmetsa said.

The base Monarch tractor retails for $50,000.

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