Electric Farm Vehicles

The Road to Zero – for farmers?

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The UK Government clearly has ambitions to move to a low carbon vehicle economy by 2040 as detailed in its strategy document “The Road to Zero“. Interestingly, however, is that while the government strategy talks about company cars, car fleets, vans and HGVs being moved to low emission technology by 2040, there is complete silence in respect to farm machinery. Now why is that?

Farm machinery comprises mainly of tractors.  Work horses that use large diesel engines that pull and move heavy loads in order to ensure that we can enjoy our bowl of Corn Flakes in the morning, a primary requirement before any Monday morning commute to work.

The interesting thing about farm related vehicles is that they are likely to produce more NOx on a daily basis than road vehicles, simply because farm vehicles are used daily to pull or carry heavy loads. As tractors are central to the farm operation and thus farmers are permitted to use “Red Diesel” a diesel that has little or no fuel duty applied.

Given that fuel duty can equate to 80% of the cost of diesel at the pumps, red diesel is therefore significantly cheaper than normal diesel and so farmers are incentivised to used it instead of environmental alternatives (red diesel and diesel at the pumps are basically the same thing except that red diesel has a dye mixed in to allow Customs Officers to check whether or not Red Diesel is being used illegally in road vehicles).

Red diesel today (02.09.2019) costs in the region of 60p/litre, roadside diesel costs around £1.30/litre (twice as much as red diesel).  If on average a tractor under load (pulling a plough or towing a grain wagon) has a mpg of 20 then the cost of doing 1 mile in a tractor using red diesel (under load) is 12p/mile.

Now if we were to consider the alternative (an electric tractor) then 1 gallon of diesel is equivalent to 50 kWh of energy.  If we assume that the Diesel engine is 40% efficient (for every 1 gallon of diesel (50kWh) of fuel in we get 20 kWh of useful energy out) and if we assume an electric motor is 90% efficient the we would have to consume 22 kWh of energy to get the same useful energy out of an electric tractor. Now if the farmer charges his electric tractor overnight at a rate of 10p/kWh (Economy 7 tariff) then the cost of using an electricity tractor would be in the region of 11p/mile – which is equivalent to Red Diesel. So why would a farmer want to change to an electric tractor such as the eUtility offered by Soletrac?

Well the simply answer is that they probably wouldn’t.  Farmers like any other business owner need to think about Return of Investment (RoI).  In this case there would be no return on investment by replacing a diesel tractor with an electric.  However, that said, if a farmer had to buy a new tractor (15,000 new tractors are bought each year) and if the UK Government offered incentive to buy an electric tractor instead of a diesel – then it makes complete sense for the farmer to consider this option (not to dissimilar from the UK Government offer incentives for people to buy electric cars).

To support this thinking, according to the NFU report “Electric Tractors by 2020?” it is likely that we will see more “hybrid” tractors entering the market in 2020.  This being a similar transition as seen in road vehicles whereby the hybrid market is established first and then there is a slow progression to a full electric.

The one thing that appears to be missing is consideration, however, is the technology.  While John Deere have demonstrated an electric tractor capable of doing all that is required on the farm, this tractor is still not yet commercially available and there is no price tag which can be used to assess the cost.  The nearest commercial option is the Soletrac as previously mentioned (an American tractor) but this is a small tractor can could not be the main unit for a fully operational arable farm (soft fruit perhaps but not arable).

So the challenge for the farm community in respect to moving to EVs for the farm, isn’t so much the infrastructure (EV charging points) or the financials (replacing an diesel vehicles with an electric isn’t overly prohibitive if there is government incentive) but rather the technology itself.  Technology in EVs for farms is lagging road vehicles significantly.

Now this is only true in respect to arable farms where a tractor is the principle work horse.  If you are a meat farmer then EVs are definitely an option.  Electric Quad vehicles have been on the market for a while and if you are a sheep farmer or cattle farmer you certainly should be looking at these when considering your next vehicle purchase.

So why are the economic different for an Electric Quad?  Well the simple answer is that running costs are a lot cheaper, between 2.5p/mile and 4p/mile depending on your electricity tariff.  A full charge allows the quad to travel the same distance as a tank of petrol and, more importantly, by running an Electric Quad you could save around £2K per annum in comparison to running a standard petrol. Now with Electric Quads which can be purchased  in UK today at around £10k, this means that the capital difference (between petrol and electric  of around £4K ) can be recouped within 2 years.

Now if the UK Government does decide to offer grants for Electric Quad bikes, then purchasing a new Electric Quad should be a bit of a no brainer (currently some electric bikes received a £1500 subsidy which if applied to the EcoCharger Electric Quad would mean that the payback on this bike with be around 1 year)

Decarbonising farming is an important thing to achieve if we really want to decarbonise our food chain. SO encouraging the UK Government to include farm vehicles in the list of vehicles eligible for subsidy would definitely be a big step in the right direction.

What do you think?

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