Powering future farms

Powering future farms

Can electric tractors, 4WDs and harvesters work in the bush? What are the energy options for agriculture as Australia decarbonises?


From stump-jump ploughs to GPS-guided harvesters, Aussie farmers have long welcomed innovation for more cost-efficient and productive agriculture. Today’s farmers and transport operators face a fresh round of self-sufficiency and technology issues, as they find new energy sources for sheds, utes, generators, tractors and trucks in the transition to greener energy.

“The biggest challenge facing farmers will be power sources for agricultural equipment,” says National Farmers Federation (NFF) vice-president David Jochinke, from his 3000ha farm at Murra Warra, halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide. He says agriculturalists in his area and across the country are as adaptable as ever, and well aware of future power issues. “We’ve only had mains power here since the 1960s, so we’ve been fairly self-sufficient most of our careers. It’s only the past 2 generations that’ve had access to main line power … We’ll probably go back to being self-sufficient again with lots of solar or wind generation.”

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Polaris’s electric ATV starts at $42,995; NFF vice-president David Jochinke on his Murra Warra farm;
Stuart Dawson and son Sam inspect their solar-powered Red Earth battery system in the Capertee Valley, NSW; Can-Am’s pair of all-electric motorbikes.

Within the nationwide push to electrify the economy as much as possible, David says the tipping point for change will be when network costs and technology converge. Reliability and value prospects will make it attractive for farmers to become more self-reliant on farms.

The remote Sandfire Roadhouse, WA, is set to install an EV charging station early in 2024.

However, he says the real challenge is going to be farm equipment. Agriculture is as energy-intensive as it has ever been, and as agribusinesses are becoming larger, the trend is towards bigger machines that can do more in less time. “But I hold full hope that within our lifetime there’ll be huge steps forward on the power for the machines and efficiencies within agriculture, and with AI and robotics to help,” David says. “Imagine you can drive your tractor 10% more efficiently because AI’s made the best decision possible out of all the different scenarios to get the work done. We can be more productive.”

Simon Caldwell’s array of batteries for farmhouse and shed power; Sandra Jefford and Wilco Droppert with their powerhouse on Wilandra Farms, near Sale, Vic.

There are already widespread options for electric passenger cars. Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are re-charged by mains or off-grid power. Hybrids run electric motors helped by an internal combustion engine (normally petrol-powered) for drive and battery charging. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) have both electric and petrol motors, plus the ability to feed in power from the mains. Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are still rare, using electricity created by on-board hydrogen.

An Off-Grid Energy crew set up a solar panel grid.

Sales of zero and low-emission vehicles continue to grow, with 16.6% of the Australian car market last June being battery electric, hybrid or plug-in hybrid models. Electric vehicles made up 7.4% of new vehicle sales in the first half of 2023 and Tesla’s Model Y recorded 5,560 sales in June, the second-highest selling vehicle, behind the Toyota HiLux with 6,142. Electric trucks are available from major manufacturers and specialist Australian companies, such as SEA Electric. Queensland outfit Roev builds electrified Toyota HiLuxes and Chinese maker LDV’s 130kW electric ute has a claimed range of 330km. Hyundai and Toyota now have FCEV sedans on the market, John Deere’s 100hp electric tractor is on the way and ATV manufacturer Polaris sells 2 electric side-by-sides, one with a claimed range of 130km. Rival ATV manufacturer Can-Am has electric motorbikes and is looking to electrify the entire line-up, including side-by-sides.

The solar-powered Caldwell farm on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula. Photo Ricky French.

Tractor manufacturer John Deere is focusing on engine efficiencies, hybrid vehicles, battery electric vehicles, plus renewable fuels for future machine power and improved agricultural productivity. “We need to meet the economic and efficiency needs of customers and that’s what it will take to meet the carbon reduction goals in our strategic ambitions out to 2030,” Australian managing director Luke Chandler says. “The path to a sustainable future does not only rely on electrification to power our vehicles. Biofuels like ethanol and renewable diesel must be just as much a part of the solution.”

Milne Feeds sales manager Paul Nenke is positive about the future of greener agriculture.

Toyota Australia is taking a considered approach to carbon neutrality, understanding battery EVs may not always be the answer. Still, Toyota will launch at least 3 EVs in the next 3 years and says that electrified vehicles, including hybrid-electric and other technologies, will account for more than half its sales in 2025.

Electric charging station at Euroa, Vic.

“Toyota is committed to bringing electric vehicles to Australia,” Toyota Australia’s sales boss Sean Hanley says. “We know they will play an ever-increasing role in helping us, and our customers, get to net-zero carbon emissions. We also know it will take many years for the significant challenges facing EVs to be overcome, including battery-material shortages, less-than-adequate charging infrastructure and the ability to meet diverse customer requirements such as towing.”

Hyundai’s XCIENT prime mover runs a hydrogen fuel cell for 724km of driving range; Central Queensland’s Emerald Coaches is converting to hydrogen-fuelled buses;
Toyota’s Tundra ute runs a hybrid, petrol-electric power plant.

Much of the world’s commercial hydrogen today is extracted from coal and natural gas through thermochemical reactions, creating some carbon emissions, Australia has potential to supply all the world’s ‘green’ hydrogen needs in 2050 with the country’s abundance of renewable energy sources and water supplies, according to the 2019 National Hydrogen Strategy.

Roev’s Noah Wasmer with Scott Gillespie behind the wheel. Scott, the founder of CarBon New Energy, has signed up for 500 all-electric Roev utes.

Bioethanol, biodiesel and renewable diesel are seen as short and long-term answers to future energy sources. These fuels, made from a range of materials from sugar cane to vegetable oils, and fats to plant waste, could bridge the gap as passenger cars transition to all-electric vehicles.

Synthetic fuels could play a major part in decarbonising farms, according to engineering Professor John Fletcher, director of the University of NSW Digital Grid Futures Institute. “Those replacement fuels really do help, particularly small farms, in decarbonising because a small farm might only change its machinery once every 40 years, so having a fuel system

Margaret River station manager Rex Seiler fuels up the R22.

that’s sustainable is going to be a much better solution than trying to electrify all their existing equipment, I think synthetic fuel can play a big part in avoiding having to sink big money into new equipment, new assets,” John says.

NFF’s David Jochinke says that in recognising that everything will change, discussions about future farm power need to address how quickly the change will affect purchasing options and what the legacy issues are with older, seldom-used, equipment.

“History is littered with technology wrong-footing – like Beta versus VHS video. You don’t want to jump the wrong way and be caught with an orphan system, and you want to make sure there are incentives to help make the right decisions. Right now, I’d say there has not been a farm table that hasn’t had the discussion around the potentials for the future.”