We have seen the evolution in cars, so now it is time for electric tractors to start working the fields.
Canada’s food system is a result of the “green revolution”. Increased crop yields result from the use of large quantities of fossil-fuel energy in the form of diesel-powered machinery. This heavy reliance on fossil fuels means our food system is dependent on non-renewable resources that are becoming increasingly scarce and volatile. This dependence poses a growing threat to both our food sovereignty and future energy supply.
The idea of reverting Canadian agricultural practices back to those used before the green revolution, when machinery such as ploughs, binders and threshing machines were pulled by horses or oxen, is unrealistic. Not only are average Canadian farms much larger and rural populations much smaller than they were before, but it simply wouldn’t be possible to produce enough calories to feed the world’s hugely increased population at a reasonable price.
Thankfully, modern day alternatives can help us overcome our heavy reliance on fossil fuels. One alternative to replacing the machinery so ubiquitous on today’s Canadian farms is to substitute the diesel used to power the machinery with cleaner, renewable sources, such as electricity produced using a multitude of different technologies, including anaerobic digesters, wind turbines, solar panels, and small, run-of-the-river hydroelectric dams.
One way to wean agriculture off its fossil fuel addiction is to use electric tractors plugged into the grid. While the idea of using plugged-in tractors may sound ludicrous at first, research to date has proven surprisingly positive. For example, in one recent study undertaken in Sweden, it was found that using mains-operated, electrically-powered tractors to carry out even heavy fieldwork, such as ploughing and harrowing, was not only possible, but the cost was lower than using conventional diesel machines; and this is based on today’s cost of fossil fuels.
The idea behind electric tractors involves using a constant cabled power supply; the tractor carries a cable reel and plugs in to fixed connection points around the field. Technology and a special driving pattern are then used to avoid damaging the cable when the tractor carries out the fieldwork. While a cable and connection points are unavoidable, the avoidance of expensive and heavy batteries greatly reduces both the cost and weight of the tractor.
With Canada’s abundant and growing supply of clean, renewable electricity from hydroelectric dams, wind turbines, anaerobic digesters and solar panels throughout the country, the electrification of agriculture will enable a more sustainable food system by shielding farmers from increasingly scarce and volatile fossil fuels.