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The rise of electric farm vehicles

By Shane Gilchrist |

Electric vehicles on farms? Right now, the idea is getting considerable pushback, with a lack of electric utes available. But change is happening rapidly, driven by both Government interventions and consumer demand. The Motor Industry Association says its expectation is that plug-in hybrid utes “might be more widely available by 2025”, with fully battery-powered utes coming to market sometime after that.

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Electric options are expanding

It’s not only utes which are transitioning away from petrol and diesel and toward electric. Already on the market are fully electric utility all-terrain vehicles. These are an economical and often safer alternative to a quad bike; they’re also far quieter than a diesel vehicle and they can tow over 200kg.

Electric tractors are also gaining traction in the agricultural sector, with several large manufacturers offering EV tractor models. These tractors have lower maintenance costs, are quieter, less smelly and far more efficient to operate. There is also a potential safety benefit, as drive shafts and hydraulics are replaced by electrical interfaces, leaving fewer hazards to catch on clothing or equipment, as well as a lower risk of high-pressure oil leaks.

And the very latest electric tractors take it one step further by being completely autonomous. John Deere calls these ‘the future of farming’ and says its models cause less damage to the soil than traditional tractors due to their design and weight.

Adapting to what’s available right now

One West Otago farmer isn’t waiting for electric utes to arrive in New Zealand. Instead, he’s working with what’s already available. Paul Winterbottom used to own two utes, but he’s sold one and rarely uses the other. Instead, he thrashes his EV all over the farm. It’s a Nissan Leaf, recently described as “the go-to joke vehicle” by another farmer who was adamant that this model simply wouldn’t cut it on the farm.

Paul disagrees, and his wee 30kW EV has done the hard yards, from carting kids, sheep, dogs, fence posts and other farming paraphernalia. He’s owned the Leaf for five years and done 120,000km in it, and it’s still going strong.

“It’s been hammered. I thrash it. It goes everywhere,” says Paul. “Everyone will give you these reasons why EVs are no good around the farm, but it often comes from people who haven’t used them. I even use it to tow a wee trailer that weighs about 200kg around the farm."

Nissan Leaf and Paul Winterbottom
 

“The car paid for itself”

Like many farmers, Paul is big on return on investment. He’s run the numbers on his EV and likes the results: “I used to run a big diesel. The running costs of using it for 30,000km per year, based on diesel and road-user charges, as well as servicing every 7,500kms, worked out to be around $9000 per year.

“In comparison, the EV, doing same number of kms, required no servicing or maintenance, and I couldn’t even measure its energy usage—and I was using a clamp metre. In effect, it cost nothing to run, so I’d saved $9000 that first year, $10,000 the following year, and about $9500 the third year. Now, I only paid $26,000 (+GST) for a brand-new EV. Once I claimed depreciation over those first three years, the car paid for itself by the end of two and a-half years.”

A quest to charge faster

Paul is passionate about creating a business that’s both economically successful and environmentally sustainable, and says he has spent “around a million” on sustainable initiatives on his 1500ha farm, on which he runs sheep and beef, along with forestry. He is investigating energy generation, too. Paul is currently installing a small inline hydro turbine below a pond that holds about 100,000 cumecs of water.

“I thought we could use the water to create energy, and store that energy in batteries,” he says. “I’m on a quest to see how fast I can charge my car. It’s an engineering project, something to satisfy my curiosity. I’ll see where it takes me."

EV sales will rise, driven by a combination of Government regulations and demand from buyers, and people like Paul are showing how successful EVs can be in the agricultural sector. His efforts give us a glimpse into the farm of the future – a quieter, safer and more sustainable place to be.

 

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