By Tom Collins
An East-Central Ontario farmer testing out a prototype electric tractor believes most farmers will eventually switch to this new technology, but prices need to come down and battery life to be extended before that happens.
“Part of me thinks this should be a more developed industry by now,” said Tony Neale, who runs a 10-acre organic vegetable farm that serves 60 member-customers at Sunderland, southwest of Lindsay in Durham County. “If we’re doing genetic editing and sending people to Mars in a couple of years, we should be able to figure out an electric tractor.”
Two years ago, Neale wanted to buy an electric tractor. While he found a few farmers across North America who had made their own, there was no company mass producing them. While searching online, he found Steve Heckeroth of Solectrac in California, who was building prototypes. Neale flew to California last winter to visit Heckeroth for 10 days, talk shop and place an order. Last summer, his tractor order arrived on the farm, shipped up from California on a flatbed. It was one of 10 prototypes, the only one in Canada.
Neale says, compared to a diesel tractor, an electric tractor is quieter and cheaper to run as it saves money on fuel and maintenance costs. The electric tractor is equivalent to a 40-horsepower diesel engine and can run for five to eight hours on a single charge, he said. He declined to say how much it cost but estimated that it is slightly more expensive than a traditional 40-horsepower tractor. Neale mainly uses the tractor for discing, cultivating, weeding with a tine-weeder and as a harvest wagon. However, the machine can do anything that a regular tractor can do with a Category 1 hitch for implements and a pto hook-up, he said.
Neale installed 10-kilowatt solar panels that can charge the tractor in about five hours. When not charging, the 40 solar panels put electricity into the grid, giving him extra income.
Neale estimated when electric tractors are first released, they will be 15 per cent higher than a diesel tractor of the same size. He said farmers won’t warm up to the technology until the battery life is extended from about six hours and the price comes down. That could take years, but Neale said electric car researchers are trying to design the “holy grail” of batteries — called a solid-state battery — that will help reduce costs and increase the amount of time between charges.
“Like any technology, when it comes out first, it’s more expensive and it’s not as good as it’s going to be,” he said. “My uncle bought a computer in 1980 for $10,000 that had no memory, and the processing power was basically what you would find in a birthday card now. This (electric tractor) technology will follow the same trajectory as computers, VCRs and everything that was not that good and super expensive at first.”