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Plow, plant and plug in

August 13, 2021

Each harvest season in the Red River Valley is ushered in by the steady rumble of diesel tractors. But experts believe the future of this frenzied time on the farm may soon be reduced to a gentle hum.

The low-noise operation of electric tractors could bring a stillness back to the prairie, along with benefits to farmers and ranchers ranging from cost and maintenance savings to lower emission levels. Several major manufacturers, including John Deere, have invested substantial resources into electric tractor development and are expected to have commercially available models within a few years.

What does it mean for those in Minnkota Power Cooperative's service area? Research from EnSave and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) indicates that eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota are among the best areas in the country to advance electric tractor technology.

“The vast amounts of harvested cropland in the Red River Valley creates great potential for electrification of tractors,” said Keith Dennis, NRECA’s vice president of consumer member engagement. “As batteries continue to be lower in price and more widely available, there will be more and more opportunities to save money and increase performance by switching to electric technology in a wide variety of applications.”

One of the first all-electric models to emerge in fields this fall is the Monarch. Starting at $58,000, this small electric tractor has a 55-kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery (70 horsepower) and can operate for more than 10 hours. Larger tractors are also in the works, most notably John Deere’s Sustainable Energy Supply for Agricultural Machinery (SESAM) tractor, which features a maximum output of 400 horsepower from a 150-kWh battery and can operate for about four hours. The SESAM can perform typical mixed mode operations, with a recharge time of around three hours.

Although initial capital costs are expected to be higher, farmers and ranchers will see substantial operational savings because electric tractors don’t require regular oil changes, part replacements or tune-ups. Electric tractors can also be placed on our off-peak program, which provides a lower electric rate for charging during overnight hours and other times when there is less demand for electricity. The 150-kWh John Deere SESAM battery could be fully charged on an average off-peak rate for about $10.

In addition to tractors, electrification of utility task vehicles (UTVs), skid steers, robotic feeders and other equipment has the potential to provide financial and environmental benefits for the region’s growers.

“There are increasing opportunities for beneficial electrification on farms,” Dennis said. “From pumping water, to moving materials, to heating spaces, almost anything that can be done with direct combustion of fuel has the potential to be electrified as technology develops. While some folks associate electrification with electric cars, there are many off-road vehicles, that can be electrified.”

MAIN IMAGE: The hood is popped on an electrified John Deere prototype to reveal the tractor's battery packs. (photo courtesy of John Deere)

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