Is Electrifying Agricultural Vehicles The Off-Highway Market’s Biggest Challenge?

Off-highway vehicle electrification is gathering pace, particularly in the construction and mining industries. Improving lithium-ion battery (LIB) technology is one of the major driving forces behind this, ensuring that companies stand to benefit from more than adhering to policies and reduced emissions. There are now operational and cost benefits to going electric, as tank-to-wheel efficiency and total cost of ownership are better for certain battery electric vehicles (BEVs) in these industries.

The Elcavator. Powered by Xerotech’s Hibernium® battery system

You’d be forgiven for expecting the agricultural sector to follow a similar trajectory. However, research at Interact Analysis suggests that fully electric tractors will only make up 5% of global tractor sales in 2030. Comparatively, the market penetration rate for mini-excavators in the same weight category is estimated to be 13%.

While it’s understandable that people want to electrify as many industries as possible, as quickly as possible, it’s evident why farmers might be a bit more resistant to change at this point in time. In an industry where profit margins are tight and the world’s food security is on the line, any form of vehicle downtime can carry huge repercussions.

The current scenario

Many will point out that diesel machines don’t even make the top five GHG contributors in agriculture. Instead, it’s enteric fermentation that leads the way, followed by manure and fertilizer management. This information, therefore, leads to the question: is it really necessary to aggressively replace current farming equipment with battery-electric options?

Current diesel engines are proven technology in terms of duration for the working day, performance in tough weather conditions, serviceability, and quick refuelling when needed. Therefore, if the alternative technology doesn’t immediately satisfy these criteria, it’s going to be a struggle to convince farmers to make the switch.

Harvesting season could place 15-hour operational time on the vehicles in fields that are far from reliable power sources. Furthermore, increased battery weight could pose another challenge, as it could result in compacting soil when the vehicle drives over it. This gives crops less growth room and risks permanently damaging fertile soils, even if the vehicle’s weight is distributed more efficiently.

What is preventing progress?

LIB adopters in the construction and mining industries are enjoying a plethora of advantages other than zero emissions. BEVs come with up to 70% better tank-to-wheel efficiency, less downtime and risk of malfunction, and silent operation. Regenerative braking and replacing hydraulic systems with motors not only removes the need for braking and hydraulic fluids (saving costs) but also presents the opportunity for kinetic energy recovery systems.

However, direct access to charging stations via secure power sources or battery-swapping technology enables the use of BEVs. Farmers, unfortunately, are not always guaranteed this, especially if the farm in question covers massive tracts of land. During particular seasons, it’s also possible that vehicles and machinery won’t return to the base of operation for days or even weeks.

Diesel permits this since it’s got better energy density than lithium-ion batteries, and should more fuel be required, containers brought by pickup or ATV can be used to refill the tank and continue operations. Downtime in this regard is kept to a minimum, while some combine harvesters come with 800L fuel tanks, ensuring the fewest possible stops.

In a best-case scenario, lithium-ion batteries used for such large machines would likely require hours of charging for a full top-up, and they are still unlikely to be able to complete a ten-hour shift in one sitting. However, it’s worth noting that diesel engine technology is highly mature, while LIBs are still reaching their full potential.

In summary, diminished longevity, difficulty in establishing adequate charging points, and time taken to reach full charge are the chief culprits preventing increased uptake of electric vehicles in the agricultural sector. However, it’s good to know that, prior to the success being seen in the construction and mining industries, there was initial difficulty in configuring batteries to suit the applications.

What’s driving the change?

In those industries, OEMs first sought to electrify smaller applications such as mini excavators and mini loaders. Data was collected from their exploits, further tests were conducted, and the batteries were scaled up to power bigger machines. It’s a gradual process that’s still ongoing, though it’s quite a feat that the technology has gone from powering 3-ton excavators to 60-ton trucks.

That’s why there’s a push to transfer this technology to the agricultural sector, though patience and support are certainly going to be required. The first step should be to either electrify smaller vehicles and machinery or opt for hybridized versions before scaling up to the larger machinery.

There is a misconception sometimes that the electrification of vehicle fleets is an “all or nothing” endeavour. It certainly is not the case, and in farming, it could mean electrifying pickups and ATVs for starters. For these two vehicles, there’s ample proof that electrification is the way forward, while for larger vehicles, electrifying certain components does at least result in fuel reductions.

Switching hydraulics for various motors also makes it easier to engage the extensions, as engine RPM does not need to be raised and allows for increased movement precision. Furthermore, idling, one of the chief culprits of needless emissions, is completely removed. An IEEE release detailed how even electrifying certain auxiliaries instead of the whole power source would reduce parasitic losses and improve fuel efficiency.

In the ten-ton tractor segment, there’s already plenty of scope to electrify, especially if being used on a small farm with reliable power sources nearby. BEVs have few moving parts that experience friction, which means that not only is it a simpler set-up that’s less likely to break down, but there’s much less wear and tear, guaranteeing more uptime than a diesel engine.

Lithium-ion battery technology has also developed to the extent that such batteries can work well even in harsh environments. For this, operators would need to opt for a battery with a highly efficient thermal system that ensures optimal performance in hot or cold conditions alike. This thermal efficiency also means that in cold environments, BEVs don’t need to warm up and can engage in activity immediately.

The element of silence and reduced vibrations offered by BEVs will also be extremely helpful in a farming environment. For starters, it allows for a healthier work environment for the machine operator, and secondly, there’s less disturbance for the locals, whether people, farm animals or wildlife. This advantage also facilitates late night and early morning working and work inside equestrian barns too, for example.

New Holland’s T4 Electric tractor offers a whole host of features to go with the above advantages. These would include autonomous driving, driver assistance modes, 360-Degree Awareness, Follow Me mode and Map Maker, all designed to facilitate the operator’s life and boost production and vehicle efficiency.

New Holland’s T4 Electric Tractor. Image source: T4 Electric Power – All-Electric Utility Tractor | New Holland

Embrace the future

Aside from these benefits, embracing BEV farming equipment prepares farmers for the arrival of Agriculture 4.0, the next phase of the agricultural revolution. What this term refers to is the increased use of technology, data, and new farming techniques aimed at increasing efficiency and facilitating decision-making processes.

The Internet of Things, precision agriculture, automated driving, and artificial intelligence will all play a critical role in ensuring global food security is never under any form of threat. Therefore, it’s important for the stakeholders in this segment to familiarize themselves with the technology that is going to help them, hence the need to adopt BEVs.

These types of vehicles are better positioned for these technologies and those yet to come to the market. Time is ticking on the diesel engine, although it still has a few years left in it to power the agricultural vehicles that are tough to electrify. However, there are other machines that require a little belief from the farming community, and it’ll certainly be a positive case of reaping what they sow.

Xerotech’s scalable battery platform makes it an ideal candidate for powering such equipment and taking on what it is possibly the off-highway market’s biggest challenge. Our world-leading safety solution is matched with operability across a wide temperature spectrum, ensuring peak performance in the toughest of conditions. Users and OEMs can choose their desired energy content, cell chemistry, voltage range, and physical dimensions.

Better still, we offer multi-pack functionality, where one can achieve a maximum of 12MWh of energy in a single system by linking up to 40 platforms together. This option allows OEMs to leverage multiple smaller packs that can be stacked into a space where one large pack doesn’t fit. This way, the desired capacity, voltage, and operating duration can be reached even for agricultural equipment.

If you’d like to see how our battery might fit your application, head to our online catalogue, where you can find all there is to know about our batteries in terms of performance data, module characteristics and plenty more. Alternatively, reach out to a Xerotech team member and sow the seeds for the start of your electrification journey!

Sample selection of batteries available on the Xerotech Battery Catalogue

About Xerotech

Xerotech is an award-winning battery technology company solving one of our generation’s most significant challenges: industrial electrification.

Driven by a shared vision of a fully electric future, our talented team is making an impact on a global scale as Xerotech provides the first truly credible path to zero emissions and enables the electrification of machines that were previously too low-volume to be economically electrified.

Our Hibernium® battery pack platform adapts to the bespoke needs of your vehicle or application. With Hibernium®, you can choose your desired or preferred energy content, operating voltage range, physical dimensions, and even battery cell chemistry.

There are no design or engineering costs, even for one-off prototyping projects, making this solution one of the only viable options for low-volume, high-diversity projects.

The electrification of heavy-duty machinery is now available to every OEM and Integrator.

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