You might not always hear them, but you’ll likely start seeing more electric tractors in fields across the U.S. and, eventually, the world. Unlike their rumbling, diesel-fueled counterparts, electric tractors are much quieter—and cleaner.
“You can hear the birds singing and you can talk with people while you’re on an electric tractor,” says Steve Heckeroth, founder and chairman of the board of Solectrac, an electric tractor company launched in 2012.
“It’s just like day and night for farm workers. It’s no longer destroying their hearing or their lungs, and they can enjoy the fresh air instead of breathing in diesel exhaust.”
By 2017, Heckeroth had already released his first two models—the Compact Electric Tractor (CET) and the eUtility Electric Tractor. (Heckeroth also expects to release another electric tractor, the eFarmer, later this year.) But the zero-emissions farm vehicles were actually a long time coming.
“I’ve been working on electric tractors for 30 years,” he says.
The seeds for Heckeroth’s work were planted earlier still—on April 20, 1970. “I decided on the first Earth Day that I wanted to find alternatives to burning fossil fuel because I could see that going to be a huge problem for all life on the planet,” he says.
A trained architect, he initially tried to make an environmental impact in architecture. “Then I switched to transportation and decided that tractors were probably the best electric vehicles,” he says.
“With most electric vehicles, the biggest problem is battery weight. But tractors need weight for traction, so they are an ideal electric vehicle.”
In part, battery technology has finally advanced enough to be able to support farmers’ real-world needs. “When I first started, all there was was lead acid,” Heckeroth says. “The weight and longevity were the biggest problem.”
These days, he uses lithium-ion phosphate battery technology. “That is the safest lithium technology,” he says. “They don’t burn, and you can stick a nail right in them, and they don’t do anything. It’s pretty amazing.”
Lithium-ion phosphate batteries can also last between 3,000 and 5,000 cycles. “That can be anywhere from 10 to 15 years, depending on how much you use the tractor,” Heckeroth says.
Just what’s involved when using an electric tractor versus traditional diesel? If you’re employing an energy-intensive implement or running the tractor for many hours, you may need to fill up on diesel.
Or in the case of an electric tractor, it might be time for a recharge.
Although Heckeroth’s CET doesn’t have an exchangeable battery pack, the other Solectrac models do. “The bigger tractors have a hitch on the front and a hitch on the back. So if you are running an implement on the rear hitch you have a battery pack on the front and you can keep swapping it out,” he says.
“Or, if you have some implement on the front, you can swap out the battery pack on the back.”
If you have solar arrays on your farm, you could keep an extra charging system docked there. “Where I am in California, most of the vineyards have solar arrays,” Heckeroth says. “So you don’t have to travel too far to swap out a battery.”
Heckeroth may have gotten a head start, but he’s not the only one rolling out electric tractors. Kubota showed off a prototype of its lithium-ion battery-powered tractor last year. And John Deere has been working on an autonomous tractor that plugs into the electrical grid.
For its part, Monarch Tractor released its first electric, driver-optional, smart tractor in April with full production deliveries expected by the end of 2021. “There’s a lot of technology that was already developed, commoditized and made production-ready in the automotive industry. So we took those bits and pieces in coming up with our tractor,” says Praveen Penmetsa, Monarch Tractor co-founder and CEO.
“Our battery, for example, is as large or larger than any of the big electric cars out there in the same already-proven automotive technology. We didn’t want to deploy some technology for farmers that would break down or cause issues.”
The Monarch Tractor battery takes five hours to recharge via a 220-volt system and has battery-swapping capabilities. “You can swap it out in the middle of the field,” Penmetsa says. “That way, you can keep your operation going without having to recharge.
“And our battery, for most operations, lasts eight-plus hours.”
Electric & Driverless
After hearing from would-be customers, Penmetsa and his team had an “aha moment” that led them to automate both the tractor driver and its implement control. “[We heard,] ‘Your tractor, while great, is not changing my economics significantly,” he says. “
‘The diesel cost is not a huge expense for me right now. The cost of the driver is.’”
“So, you can use the tractor like a normal tractor, or if you’re just mowing or spraying or running the same operation three or four times, you can do it once with you on the tractor, and then the tractor can repeat that operation with you off of it,” Penmetsa says.
And, if something goes wrong or looks amiss? The tractor is “smart” enough to send alerts as needed.
“It’s not possible for the farmer to cover every inch of his farm on a weekly basis or a daily basis,” Penmetsa says. “But if the tractor is already out there doing all these operations, we can use its cameras and artificial intelligence to provide ‘actionable insights’ to the farmer.”
Cost & Maintenance
On average, you can expect to pay around $50,000 for an electric tractor. You can also expect to save on upkeep, repairs and, of course, the need for fuel.
“There are over 300 moving parts in a diesel engine, so those are all parts that need maintenance,” Heckeroth says. “With an electric motor, there’s only one moving part. With oversize bearings, there is no maintenance required for decades.”
There’s at least one more important savings to consider.
“A typical [diesel-powered] tractor, using the typical life cycle, [emits] 53 tons of carbon dioxide every year,” Penmetsa says. So, a single farmer switching to electric would bring those greenhouse gas emissions to zero.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.