As electric vehicle development continues to increase, this new technology is beginning to make its way to farms and ranches. While this might be a wave of the future, there are several variables to consider before taking the leap to electric (EV) tractors on your farm.
Unlike electric road vehicles such as cars and trucks where the weight of their batteries poses an obstacle for their development, electric farm tractors find this increased weight to be beneficial. In electric farm machinery, the higher weight of the batteries is a benefit that can improve both traction and stability for the heavy farm work that these machines perform.
One of the better known benefits of electric vehicles, including tractors, is the positive environmental impact they make by reducing air pollution as well as noise pollution. With zero emissions while working on battery power and a whisper-quiet engine, there’s virtually no comparison in this category between electric and diesel or gas-powered tractors.
Electric tractors can also operate with higher efficiency compared to diesel or gas engine tractors since all of the energy spent goes directly to the work that the tractor is performing. With diesel and gas engines, some of the energy is spent creating heat during combustion in the engine. While this might seem like a nominal amount of energy loss, over hundreds and thousands of acres this can add up to greater food production vs. energy consumption, which may equate to higher profitability for your farm.
Another benefit to electric tractors is the ability for some to operate fully autonomously. These tractors can be operated from a smartphone or personal device, programmed to precision. While this can increase productivity per man hours, it is also arguably significantly safer to operate than manned diesel and gas-powered tractors. While it’s hard to put a price tag on a metric such as this, it can prove quite valuable as you are able to allocate your farm staff toward other tasks that cannot be automated and provide a safer and healthier work environment for your farm crew.
One drawback at this junction, however, is the significantly higher price tag on the initial purchase compared with gas or diesel engine tractors. New electric farm tractors can cost 20-35% more than comparable diesel or gas models. Granted, with only one moving part, the maintenance costs over the life of the engine are potentially lower on electric tractors compared with their diesel and gas counterparts, but still to be proven, since they are not commonly in use yet.
Something that is both a plus and a minus are the batteries themselves. The prices of gas and diesel have been growing. A single set of batteries necessary to operate an electric tractor can last for up to 10 years with normal discharge and charging cycles, making electric tractors exceptionally cost effective over the long term. With an average charge time of 4 hours per charge, the cost to charge is a fraction of a full tank of diesel or gasoline. Unfortunately, most electric farm tractors can only run 8-12 hours before having to be charged. This lower energy density is a current limitation of most electric tractors on the market today. While it’s very simple to pull up to a pump and refuel a diesel or gas powered tractor that is running low on fuel in order to keep the machinery in operation all day long, stopping to plug in for four hours takes the machinery out of commission for much longer.
One option is to have a back-up battery bank that can be quickly swapped out when batteries are nearly drained and in need of a recharge. This can bring productivity to levels that are comparable to those of gas and diesel tractors. However, this comes at a cost, from $15,000-$18,000. With the higher upfront cost of the electric farm tractor itself, it may or may not be in your price range, but depending on the life of the tractor and its batteries, may still be a lower overall expense compared with diesel and gas powered tractors. More data and experience as EV tractors go into real-life use will provide us with more information.
While electric farm tractors are a newer technology and currently hold a smaller share of the market, it might be an option to consider when you are in the market for new equipment. As you weigh the pros and cons against your farm’s specific needs you may decide that the upfront investment might pay off in the long run for your farm and your long term goals.