As any cross-country drive will tell you, the US has a lot of farmland. In 2019, America’s farms produced nearly 1.9 billion bushels of wheat from 47.8 million acres of farmland. And that’s just wheat. America’s most common crop, corn, is grown on 82.5 million acres. That’s a whole lot of land, and there are a whole lot of diesel-burning tractors and farm implements out there doing all the harvesting, churning out harmful carbon emissions as they do. Deciding that there had to be a better way, Ideanomics’ Solectrac brand began developing some seriously capable, zero-emission electric tractors to clean up the farming sector — that’s the plan, anyway, and I recently had the chance to sit down with Solectrac’s CEO, Mani Iyer, to talk about it.
One thing that comes across quickly when you talk to Mani is that he is smart. He listens to your questions, thinks for a moment, then answers in thoughtfully constructed paragraphs. It’s a rare trait, but one you might expect from a 28-year veteran of the agricultural industry who served as president of LiuGong North America and CEO of Mahindra Agriculture Americas (where he led the brand to a “top three” position in the North American ag market) prior to joining Solectrac. And he knows his stuff!
“There is a market for about 300,000 tractors per year,” explains Mani. “70% of those are below 50HP, we have a 30HP and 40HP equivalent tractor already, with a 50 HP and 100 HP coming later.” Mani goes on to explain that the high-torque at low/zero rpm characteristics of the tractors keep them competitive with larger, higher horsepower tractors already. “With just four SKUs,” he says, “we’re able to cover 85% of the market’s needs. That was the goal: the least SKEs, the most coverage.”
There’s more to tractoring needs than horsepower, though, and the established tractor brands — or, as Mani called them, “the green guys and the orange guys” — have a massive catalog of implements like buckets, mowers, graders, and more in their catalog. I asked, how can Solectrac compete against decades of aftermarket growth?
“All of those tools will fit our tractors,” he said. From the info on the company’s website, the tractor accepts all category 1 and 2 implements on the rear 3-point hitch, 540 rpm PTO, with a lifting capacity of 2000 lb. Iyer said as much, then went on to explain that it’s Solectrac’s overall concept. That is to say that, while the diesel engine and fuel tank are replaced with more sustainable electric power, the rest of the tractor (the power transmission and the hydraulic systems, for example) are based on existing technology. “Those systems are proven to have a 10-15 year lifespan,” he explained. “There is no reason to change them.”
We talked a bit more about the use of legacy technology and how that flattened the learning curve in terms of getting dealers and end-users comfortable with Solectrac’s products. I joked that the next step in making his tractors more sustainable was to replace the hydraulic oil with bio-based oil to make that more sustainable, but Iyer wasn’t laughing. “We are looking into that, actually,” he said. “That is really part of our mission, which is to replace the high-pollution and high-maintenance tractors that run on fossil fuels with reasonably priced, low maintenance, zero emissions tractors. And we are looking into all the aspects of that.”
From there, we started talking about how some of a farm’s agricultural waste materials could be used to power the generators that charge the tractors at night, but Mani was most excited about solar. “There are a number of different configurations possible for solar,” he said (I’m paraphrasing a bit here). “We are looking at solar on top of farm buildings, but also something like a car port that charges a battery during the day, while the tractor is working, then transfers power to the tractor again when it’s parked. We are also looking into some solar roof panels to power the electricals of the tractor, the lights and accessories and such, which will extend battery life a bit more.”
Why you’d want to extend battery life beyond the (optional) 8 hours of available runtime is beyond me, as even a 12-hour shift rarely sees more than 8 hours of runtime — and, remember, when this tractor is stopped, it’s not idling. That means it’s not burning fuel or expending energy. For those extreme use cases, though, Solectra is developing a swappable battery pack to keep its tractors going into the night.
Even better, crews using Solectrac’s tractors will be able to work into the night without disturbing the neighbors. Their tractors operate at just 65 decibels — a bit louder than regular conversation between two people.
“Noise pollution is another kind of pollution,” says Iyer. “And that quiet operation is important. It reduces fatigue for the operators and is much more friendly for the wildlife and the ag animals.” In that way, Solectrac’s electric tractors are uniquely suited to serve the needs of community-based farms, vineyards, orchards, equestrian centers, greenhouses, and hobby farms like singer Jack Johnson’s Kōkua Hawaii Foundation farm.
I knew about that farm’s electric tractor, but didn’t realize it was a Solectrac. In fact, I didn’t realize they’d delivered any tractors, in fact, since they were selling $1000 “pre-order” deposits not very long ago. “We have delivered about fifty so far,” explained Iyer. “We are hoping to have quite a few more delivered by the end of the year, as well.”
We talked a bit more about tractor stuff — like the rabbit and the turtle drawings on the throttle, which led to my favorite quote of the conversation: “You don’t ever really need to go full rabbit because all of the torque is in the turtle.” — and circled back to California being a ZEV state, banning the sale of ICE-burning cars after 2035 (a ban that New York also just implemented). I mentioned that legislation and asked if that was one of the drivers behind his move to Solectrac earlier this year. I was very surprised when he said no. “We are not looking for legislation to put us in business,” he said. “What we want is an audience, for customers to try us out and give us a chance to prove that we have a superior product in the electric tractor, and for them to take it on its own merit.”
That’s full rabbit talk if I’ve ever heard it, and I hope Solectrac succeeds.
That’s my take, anyway — what’s yours? Do you guys think Solectrac’s blue tractors have what it takes to compete against the green and orange guys and capitalize on their first mover advantage, or will they be crushed like bugs when the legacy companies discover the benefits of electrification a few years down the line? Scroll on down to the comments section and let us know.
Original content from CleanTechnica.