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Electrifying the farm: ‘It could add a couple of hundred thousand to our bottom line’
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Electrifying the farm: ‘It could add a couple of hundred thousand to our bottom line’

It takes a specialised arsenal of diesel-guzzling machines to grow a crop on Tom Carmody’s broadacre farm near Esperance, 600km south-east of Perth.

Hulking metal tractors tow plowers, seeders, sprayers and spreaders up and down vast expanses of wheat, canola and barley. When the grain is ripe, combine harvesters roar by.

But with the price of fuel nearly doubling in the past decade, Carmody says he is looking for other options.

“It’s about the economics, not necessarily now, but what are fuel prices going to look like in another 10 years’ time?” he says. “[Switching to electric machinery] could add a couple of hundred thousand to our bottom line.”

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Mike Casey, the chief executive of Rewiring Aotearoa, has made the switch at his six-hectare cherry orchard in New Zealand. He says it’s the world’s first fully-electric farm, saving more than A$36,000 in fuel annually.

The upfront cost of his 21 electric machines – including a tractor, lawnmower and forklift – was nearly double what he would have paid for their fossil-fuel powered equivalents. But Casey says it’s cheaper in the long term.

“Every time we bought a new machine, we did the numbers on it,” he says. “The economics stack up so beautifully.”

As more electric farm machinery trickles into the market, that economic argument is becoming more persuasive, Casey says. But so far it only extends to vineyards and orchards.

For broadacre cropping, Casey says, the electric farm machinery now available is “going to be terrible … It’s just not powerful enough to do the job.”

A farmer musters cattle on a motorbikeView image in fullscreen

Farmers including Carmody and Simon Wallwork, another Western Australian farmer and the chair of AgZero2030, are waiting for technology to catch up.

Wallwork says the electrification of his farm would be the next milestone in reducing emissions but the low- or zero-emissions heavy machinery required for large-scale cropping is nascent. In the interim he plans to buy an electric passenger vehicle.

“We obviously want to do the right thing by the environment but, if you want wide uptake from farmers it has to be cost effective [and] actually exist,” Wallwork says.

It is an intractable challenge that a flurry of startups and big machinery manufacturers are beginning to solve, including Terry Krieg, the co-founder of Linttas Electric Company.

After nine years of testing a prototype on-farm, Linttas Electric Company has filed a patent for a semi-electric combine harvester. Kreig says the design will reduce fuel consumption by about one-third and uses a diesel motor that can be replaced by a hydrogen reciprocating engine once they become commercially viable.

“As far as look and feel, it will look pretty much like a traditional machine,” Krieg says. “It will be sexy.”

Agriculture accounts for 18% of Australia’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions, less than a 10th of which is attributed to on-farm fuel combustion.

But on grain farms such as Wallwork’s and Carmody’s, according to the Australian Farm Institute, emissions from fuel are much higher. Diesel accounts for about 85% of energy used on-farm.

A report by peak body Grain Growers, released last week, said the sector was especially difficult to decarbonise due to its reliance on diesel-powered, high-torque machinery that must be able to operate in remote locations for long hours.

The Grain Growers advocacy and rural affairs manager, Sean Cole, suggests the solution will be a shift to a mix of biofuels, hydrogen and electric power depending on “costs, infrastructure and technological advancements over time”.

“Electric vehicles … are close to competitive against fossil fuel-derived diesel, however farm technology is still under development and faces range and recharging challenges,” he says.

Prof Ray Willis, the managing director of Future Smart Strategies, says transitioning away from diesel is not solely driven by the need to reduce carbon emissions.

“It’s about redesigning the vehicle for the first time in 100 years,” Willis says. “If you make it electric, inevitably it turns out to be better, more durable, more reliable.”

More government support is needed to help farmers switch to emerging low-emissions farm machinery, he says. “At present it relies on farmers to help themselves and farmers are too busy putting a crop in the ground,” Willis says.

Many farmers also have a level of disbelief about the benefits. “You tell people you can take 80% off your fuel bill and they will say, ‘What are you smoking?’”

Another barrier is access. Casey had to fly to San Francisco to buy an electric tractor for this orchard, and higher upfront costs can restrict widespread adoption.

Electric machinery can also require farmers to alter their behaviour to allow time for batteries to recharge.

For Casey, that has meant changing the way tasks are spread out on his farm, which can also maximise savings by charging batteries about midday, when solar energy is the cheapest. But with current electric technology, he concedes that “if you need to do things like get the harvest off before the rain comes, you can’t do things like that”.

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Source: theguardian.com