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Farm Equipment Autonomy & Electrification: Evolution or Revolution?

Autonomy and electrification are the two megatrends in farm equipment and there is no reason for them to compete with each other - in fact, they should be complementary. But industry focus, media posts and investment dollars are finite commodities so it is worth explaining why electrification, which lags autonomy by those metrics, is actually an impending revolution in farming while autonomy is part of long, continuous evolution in agricultural productivity.

To be fair, there is a qualitative difference in the introduction of technologies that replace not only human muscle but human cognition, but the result is the same – greater yield with less labor. This trend has proceeded apace throughout the industrial revolution.

Electrification, on the other hand, represents a potential reversal of the change a century ago that outsourced production of energy for motive power on the farm. When animals provided power for work, farmers allocated acreage to feeding them–about six acres per horse or 0.4 acres per HP (a horse produces ~15 HP!). Farmers were happy to replace animals with more powerful, flexible machines that didn’t need to be fed when they weren’t working and to reclaim productive land. The relationship with oil companies as suppliers of energy for mobile farm equipment and pumps and with electric utilities for pumps and stationary equipment has deepened and, with reliable supply and manageable prices–especially in the United States–there has been little impetus to question it.

Now, as power and fuel prices rise, financial pressures squeeze margins and demand grows for more sustainably grown food, farmers have an opportunity to take control of their energy, with energy assets providing them ROI rather than a stream of operating expenses paid to utilities and fuel marketers. An on-farm mobile microgrid consisting of solar generation and electric tractors can deliver these attractive returns while significantly reducing the carbon content of agricultural products, making them more attractive to the market.

Many farmers have taken the first step by deploying solar, especially in places like California where power prices are high and incentive structures enable a virtual microgrid in which power is physically delivered to the grid and financially allocated to electricity-consuming equipment such as irrigation pumps.

Electric tractors and equipment not only offer an opportunity to take control of a larger share of costs–on a par with pumping in some regions and much more in others–but their batteries enable physical shifting and arbitrage of power among on-farm uses. And, demand for the services they can provide to the grid extend beyond high-renewable regions like California to places like the US heartland where massive expansion of wind power will drive the need for these capabilities.

In developing countries, solar is already seen as a way to leapfrog languishing electrification efforts. Combining solar with electric tractors not only provides a key component for micro and mini-grids but turns the system from an investment that reduces pollution and improves lives to one that also generates agricultural income.

These are early days for electric tractors and it is easy to be skeptical about the prospects for a fundamental change in how energy is supplied to power the growing of food. But, returning to the example of the land cost to feed horses, a horsepower of annual tractor power requires just one one-thousandth of an acre to generate compared to four tenths of an acre for feed, while providing double digit returns.

This portends a revolution in the true sense of the word - a return to the starting point of the cycle where farmers controlled most of the inputs to growing crops and used the forces of nature--wind, water and sun--to power their operations. And, this time, the tractor just may be autonomous!


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