One of the last areas to be electrified is farm equipment, but Sustainable Northwest, a nonprofit based in Portland, wants to change that as it embarks on a pilot project across eastern Oregon to explore whether electric tractors will work in the region.
Bridget Callahan, energy program manager for Sustainable Northwest, said the organization will use the grant money it was recently awarded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to purchase several electric tractors from Solectrac Electric Tractors, an electric tractor manufacturer based in northern California. Callahan said that the tractors will then be given to producers across rural Oregon to use, including two in Lake County. They will monitor how well they work and if they should move forward on a larger roll out.
“There is so much opportunity to expand electric transportation to rural areas and this program will help bring electric tractors to local producers,” said Callahan.
She said that Sustainable Northwest plans to test the tractors under different conditions and styles of farms and ranches. The nonprofit’s staff wants to get as much feedback as possible about how the machines operate in different environments. While electric tractors have made inroads in Europe, Asia and Africa, they have yet to make a major dent in western United States farming and ranching operations. Callahan said she believes that the up-front costs might deter producers from purchasing a product that might or might not work on their property. She is hopeful that this pilot project will show that electric tractors will not only work in Oregon, but will help cut carbon emissions across the state.
Callahan said that rural transportation, especially in farm equipment, is the last area to be electrified — even as cars, trucks, and other pieces of the transportation are becoming increasingly electrified, with some car companies phasing out combustion engine vehicles. Callahan said that this is the last frontier and it is important to help producers who do wish to move to electric tractors have the data and information they need to make an informed decision.
Many farms, ranches, and operations have older tractors and Callahan said that when they are idling they are burning diesel. If these new electric tractors work, Callahan firmly believes that producers will save money in the long term over using the older equipment. She also described how indoor arenas that use tractors could make the indoor environment healthier if they switched to the electric tractors.
“The current tractors many producers use are an aging fleet and are expensive to maintain. Electric tractors could not only save money on diesel, it will save money on maintenance,” said Callahan.
She described the tractors as looking very similar to regular diesel-burning tractors. The difference is they have a battery life of three-to-eight hours, depending on how they are used, and can be plugged into an outlet in the evening to be recharged.
The pilot project will last approximately two years as Sustainable Northwest gathers data across multiple seasons from its producers. One of the goals is to match the right tractor with the right producer; an intake form will be available on the group’s website shortly for producers who are interested. Part of that process will include a screening. After the first round is complete in Lake and Klamath counties, the tractors will be moved to other counties across Oregon to see how they work in other conditions.
Callahan sees this as increasing the electrification of transportation across Oregon, and said agriculture is the last area to see any real improvements in that direction, though individual producers have installed individual solar panels for water pumps and other uses.
Callahan is excited about winning the USDA grant and to get the electric tractors in the field, which will be done in early spring 2021. She said that they are fun to ride. Sustainable Northwest is planning field tours and demonstration days in the Klamath and Lake county areas in the summer of 2021 for producers who are not part of the initial pilot project to see and ride the tractors.
While she feels confident about the project, Callahan knows that there are hurdles that need to be overcome, including the up-front costs. While other costs will be greatly diminished, interested producers might need help to overcome the initial financing barrier to purchase one for themselves. Callahan believes a combination of tax credits, rebates and creative financing will help those producers who wish to purchase an electric tractor and will help spread them far and wide. Sustainable Northwest is waiting to move forward on helping with financing until data on the project comes back in.
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