Rural Farm Electrification

By Max Matt

Roughly 9 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions come from the agriculture sector.[1] As with transportation, electricity generation, commercial, and industrial activities, this fact begs the question: what can we do about it? Some activities within agriculture emit greenhouse gases inherently – for example: cows burping.[2] Until, a recently-discovered, cow gas-reducing pink seaweed additive starts getting mass-produced, the only way to abate the gas is to curtail beef production.[3] Many other farm activities, however, involve the regular use of gasoline and diesel engines.[4] Alternatives to internal combustion engines for transportation are already in widespread use and are slowly gaining popularity.[5] This blog post will explore the electric alternatives to fossil fuel-powered industrial farm equipment, and the barriers to their adoption.

Is Electrified Farm Equipment Available?

Yes and no. John Deere is presently working on developing large-scale electric tractors. The first, the SESAM (Sustainable Energy Supply for Agricultural Machinery), debuted in 2016 and was battery powered.[6] The latest, the GridCON, is cable-powered, and packs 400 horsepower.[7] Although it must be constantly tethered by a cable, this tractor is autonomous and programmable, and has the option for remote-control.[8] Smaller tractors, on the other hand, are already on the market, and can be had for about double the price of a similar diesel tractor, which is about $20k.[9]

Barriers to Adoption

First, the issue with electrifying farm equipment, even light equipment running on batteries, is likely to be range anxiety. While you can gas up a diesel tractor all day long, electric tractors have the limitation of battery life, which may be only 4-8 hours, depending on the load.[10] Fundamentally, this problem may be difficult to solve without some larger-scale changes to electricity policy. Currently, just as with homes, DC voltages required to power level 3 chargers are not available to the average consumer without the consent and requisite line upgrades from your power company.[11] These chargers can charge an electric car to 80% in about 30 minutes, but they are prohibitively expensive to install.[12]

A Policy Issue

To facilitate the general electrification of the equipment in our lives, which currently run on fossil fuels, major investments are needed to our electrical system.[13] Right now, EV adoption is happening at the consumer level, which means that the average consumer doesn’t have to think much about their power company when they go out and buy a Tesla or a Chevy Bolt. They just buy the car and have a charger installed on a 240v panel by an electrician.[14] Their house, in turn, pulls more watts from the distribution system owned by the power company than it would without the load of an electric car. That would be just fine if our system was built to handle equipment like electric cars or tractors drawing more energy.[15] Unfortunately, especially for folks without a solar system, that isn’t the case: each new electric vehicle costs power companies (and therefore consumers) between $1700 and $5800 in grid upgrades. This might ultimately translate to a rate increase of around 12 percent, and that’s just from electric cars.[16] Electrify the agricultural sector, and inevitably that figure increases.

The Answer: (Probably) BIG Federal Spending

Back in the 1930’s, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal included a law called the Rural Electrification Act.[17] The Act empowered the federal government to make cheap loans to non-profit cooperatives of rural farmers in order to electrify rural America.[18] The Act worked well. Almost all rural areas and small towns across the U.S. have been electrified, and the co-ops have given birth to exciting administrative and engineering innovations.[19] So, could the federal government do something like that again, but to upgrade the system? The answer to that question could depend on a few more factors than just bipartisan legislation. The modern electric grid is an economy, albeit a heavily-regulated one.[20] Like most economies, it is driven by supply and demand. Usually, the model works like this: consumers want cheap electricity, and the cheapest electricity provider wins the bid to provide that power.[21] In a place like Texas, where wind power is cheap and plentiful, that has worked out in renewable energy’s favor.[22] But grid upgrades and renewable energy don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, and until electric farm equipment becomes widely available for cheap, it is unlikely farmers will invest in it. This double-edged sword begs the question: should we wait until demand for electrification drives power companies and co-ops to make massive upgrades themselves, or prepare for that eventuality? The federal government could, in theory, make money available to co-ops and power companies to perform grid upgrades. The availability of more power without more expense could drive consumers and industries like agriculture to electrify, especially in the presence of a carbon tax.

[1] https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions (see pie chart on greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector).

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/49368462 (explaining about how cows emit heaps of methane, and a seaweed additive to their feed can help).

[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffkart/2019/11/04/blue-ocean-barns-seaweed-supplement-makes-cows-burp-less-cuts-greenhouse-gas-emissions/#30d1c9a772a6 (the inventors are still working some kinks out, but this is promising technology)

[4] https://www.epa.gov/afos-air/emission-standards-farm-equipment-engines

[5] https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/10/where-americas-charge-towards-electric-vehicles-stands-today/572857/

[6] https://www.producer.com/2019/02/deeres-new-electric-tractor-tosses-the-battery/.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] https://www.solectrac.com/eutility; see also https://www.trigreenequipment.com/promotions/tractor-sales-specials/5045e-5-series-john-deere-tractor-sale/ (compare for an idea of the cost difference between a new electric light tractor and a new diesel one).

[10] https://www.solectrac.com/eutility (note the 3-6 hour battery life, and 3-hour, 80% charge time).

[11] https://www.energysage.com/electric-vehicles/charging-your-ev/install-a-home-charging-station/ (level 3 charges require direct current, which is generally not available residentially).

[12] Id.

[13] https://www.bcg.com/publications/2019/costs-revving-up-the-grid-for-electric-vehicles.aspx.

[14] https://www.energysage.com/electric-vehicles/charging-your-ev/install-a-home-charging-station/.

[15] https://www.bcg.com/publications/2019/costs-revving-up-the-grid-for-electric-vehicles.aspx.

[16] Id.

[17] https://www.nps.gov/home/learn/historyculture/ruralelect.htm.

[18] Id.

[19] https://livingnewdeal.org/glossary/rural-electrification-act-1936/.

[20] https://www.electricchoice.com/blog/what-is-electricity-deregulation/.

[21] Id.

[22] https://www.dallasobserver.com/news/texas-produced-more-energy-from-renewable-sources-than-coal-last-year-11842205 (wind now supplies more of Texas’ energy than coal).