The entire passenger vehicle industry is at a tipping point of almost total conversion to electric.
Dramatically lower vehicle prices, increased trip ranges, and the continuing democratization of recharging infrastructure have fueled electric vehicle’s (EV’s) transition into the mainstream.
Can we expect the same revolution on farms?
Not so fast; electrification on-farm is far more complicated than an equipment change- i.e., it’s not as simple as swapping EVs for internal combustion engines.
There are major manufacturing, sales, and service systems that will need to be overhauled and reconfigured, not to mention a pretty fundamental change in how energy is transported, stored, and used on farms.
Electrification on-farm is a system change. And it’s going to take a while. Here’s why.
While diesel powered farm equipment has dominated agricultural production for 70+ years, we’re seeing signs that the electrification of farm equipment is coming.
Why? Pressure to electrify is increasingly both a commercial imperative and an impact opportunity.
This is a massive opportunity. According to agricultural energy transition expert and recent AgTech…So What? podcast guest, David Meyers, farmers in the world spend about a half a trillion dollars per year on diesel fuel.
And though on-farm diesel use isn't the major emissions factor in agriculture, it is often significant. Electrification would be a welcome step in the decarbonization of agricultural production.
As the transition occurs, farmers, their service providers, existing market players, and new entrants have to consider three key shifts in the system to unlock opportunities, and manage exposure to new risks.
First and foremost, manufacturers have the huge task of proving that electrified equipment can replace what farmers already know and trust. This won’t be easy because there are many factors to consider: power, endurance, predictability, and maintenance, for example.
Predictability and maintenance could be big winners. Electrification holds the promise of significantly simpler and easier to maintain equipment.
While power may not loom as an issue, endurance could. Batteries are one of the key energy stores for electric vehicles, and therein lies a challenge. How to balance the need for long-running operations with the weight, cost, and recharging needs of batteries?
To make this more complicated, batteries won’t be the only consideration as an energy source. Liquid fuels are still in the mix with hydrogen and ammonia holding promise both in forms of combustion as well as within fuel cells.
Attachments and implements are another area where electrification will change the landscape. It may redefine the pervasive three-point linkage and PTO that is the mainstay of implements the world over. It will also offer new pathways to common tasks (e.g. electrified weed destruction).
Farms will also need to install and be connected to new hard and soft infrastructure - including know-how, regulation, and capital expenditure - that supports new energy use patterns.
Adoption of precision agriculture has often been held back by poor capacity in digital connectivity infrastructure. Many similar challenges will emerge as on-farm electrification drives greater demand for regional energy grids.
But these challenges create opportunities for new business models. If existing grid infrastructure is to scale to the opportunity, new skills and services will need to be available for farmers to enter this efficient, low-carbon world.
If existing grids can’t keep up, farmers will need to invest in their own energy infrastructure, again creating massive opportunities for products, services, and capital providers.
Whichever way the infrastructure expands, governments will also need to step up with greater regulatory support and investment incentives.
While many intensive farming operations are already accustomed to managing the cost of electric power as an input to their production costs, electrification of the farm fleet will add entire new dimensions. Farm equipment needs to be used 'on demand' and so there will be a new category of logistics and work planning needed to balance operational requirements with recharging.
It is likely that recharge activity will create significant grid load and so peak demand, price spikes, and vulnerability to weather will also create new challenges for operating electrified equipment.
Electrification won’t work if farmers can’t afford to recharge the combine when an extreme weather event is driving up power prices and threatening a crop all at the same time. New solutions will be needed to solve these complex planning challenges.
Electrification alone isn’t driving this transformation and we must guard against siloed thinking.
Current performance metrics for existing equipment won’t be the 'performance bar' that electric equipment will need to meet to find acceptance. We will see new kinds of performance emerge as electrification combines with other key systems changes like automation.
A recent GRDC case study revealed how one farmer and two SwarmFarm robots completed a week's work in a single day. Even though this wasn't electrified equipment, the point is that we need to guard ourselves against relying too heavily on existing ways-of-working to model what fully-electric, autonomous equipment might achieve in completely different ways.
On-farm electrification won’t play out the same as it will in passenger transport or road freight. Urban infrastructure and population density make many things viable in those settings that will need different solutions for agriculture. On the other hand, as David points out in the podcast, on-farm equipment usually stays on farm and hence could make for a far simpler recharging challenge to solve.
Ultimately, solving the challenges of on-farm electrification will create opportunities for innovation and drive agricultural production toward a profitable and sustainable future.