free html hit counter Peak Oil Debunked: 317. ELECTRIC AGRICULTURAL MACHINERY

Sunday, December 02, 2007


I have conclusively demonstrated that peak oil does not threaten the fertilizer supply ( #314). That doesn't stop the doomers, however. They say: We're still screwed because agriculture is utterly dependent on oil to drive agricultural machinery. It can't be driven with electricity.

Here's "bandits" over at The Oil Drum:
I say to all the electric jackasses to get off and come back when the first commercial electric combine harvester, crop duster, bull dozer or fertilizer plant is constructed. Oh yeah and make sure that they are completely manufactured using "renewable" electric power.
We can now respond to bandits on the electric fertilizer plant. As referenced in 314. PEAK OIL AND FERTILIZER: NO PROBLEM, the first commercial electric fertilizer plant began operation around 1905, in Norway, and was a huge success.

How about that electric bulldozer? Well, here's a fully electric loader/backhoe, the ET-400 from Venieri:

It's interesting that the ET-400 was designed primarily as "green" construction equipment to reduce emissions and noise.

Here's a video of an electric plow prototype, the ET-7 built by Steve Heckeroth:

More photos and information on the ET-7 are available here and here.

The argument that electricity cannot handle farm work tends to focus on the most brutal farm tasks, like plowing. Can we develop an electric plow? The answer turns out to be yes. It was being done as early as 1937 in the USSR (see the source article for a photo):
The large hydroelectric plan on the Dneiper River in Russia's Dnepropetrovsk province makes it possible for them to use electric farm equipment like the two-way plow shown on the front cover of this week's Science News Letter.

No tractor is attached to the plow, which can reverse and travel in either direction. It is particularly useful on large areas of flat ground without rock like that on which the implement is pictured. (Science News Letter, October 23, 1937)Source
Apparently electric agriculture was all the rage as far back as 1879:
Already -- by 1879 in fact -- French engineers were plowing with electricity, adapting that power to the well-established British steam cable plowing system, utilizing two motors, one on each side of the field, to power windlasses alternately winding up steel cable and drawing a two-way plow to and fro between them."[from "Early Uses of Electricity in American Agriculture", Clark C. Spence, Technology and Culture, Vol. 3, No. 2. (Spring, 1962), p. 143.]
Spence cites an estimate that 1600 electric plows were operating in Germany at the end of WWI. It's a clever idea, isn't it? Plowing with just the blade/implement, and no tractor. Here's a slick variation from 116 years ago:
A novel cable approach was suggested in 1891 by an imaginative reader of the Rural New Yorker, who urged that an electric motor be located on a revolvable platfrom in the center of a field to draw in plows on radial lines by means of cable.[op.cit., p. 145]
Wow! That could be more than just an agricultural machine -- it could be a thrill ride. Put a pair of handlebars on the plow, and drag people at high speed through the soil for $3 a pop.
-- by JD


At Sunday, December 2, 2007 at 10:46:00 AM PST, Blogger dc said...

Even barring any further advances in battery technology, I fail to understand why electricity is a show-stopper for agricultural equipment. After all, in the worst-case scenario you could still have equipment tethered to various sources. IOW, the range requirement is a minor issue, at most in this context.

At Sunday, December 2, 2007 at 11:40:00 AM PST, Blogger Fat Man said...

Much of the agricultural problem would solve itself if the US congress stoped subsidizing industrial farming of crops like maize and cotton.

At Wednesday, December 5, 2007 at 9:35:00 AM PST, Blogger Mr. Sprang said...

Single field electric plow machinery is no more absurd than the single-field irrigation systems farms already use all over America. I would imagine that eventually, the two would merge in part, as the infrastructure for one could provide a good platform for the other.

At Friday, February 22, 2008 at 5:12:00 PM PST, Blogger Bernd Riechelmann said...

Running vehicles on batteries, not to mention agricultural machinery, is a pipe dream. A battery that supplies same energy as one gallon of hydrocarbon fuel will weigh a ton.
Bernd Riechelmann

At Friday, May 30, 2008 at 3:54:00 PM PDT, Blogger regeya said...

bernd riechelmann, that's a pretty bald-faced statement. I'm not sure I believe it, either.

And I find it hard to believe that we won't come up with any way to make fuel cells an affordable alternative to batteries, either, in case nano titanate batteries don't pan out...which, considering how phenomenal they are wrt traditional batteries, I don't see that being true at all.

At Sunday, June 1, 2008 at 3:03:00 PM PDT, Blogger Bernd Riechelmann said...

About my statement that a gallon of fuel equals a ton of battery:
Looking at the website:
I see that the energy content of diesel fuel is 13,762 watt-hours per kilogram
Assuming a typical engine efficiency of 30% that means the diesel engine delivers 4,129 watt-hours per kg of fuel.

A good lithium ion battery can deliver 110 watt-hours per kilogram. That means that the batteries of an electric vehicle will weigh 37.5 times as much as an equivalent tank of diesel fuel. So a gallon of diesel fuel weighing 3.4 kg would have the same energy content as a high tech battery weighing 127.5 kg. Not quite a ton, I must admit.

However, to have the same range as a diesel powered vehicle with a 10 gallon tank of fuel (weighing 34 kg), a battery powered vehicle would have to carry a battery weighing 1,275 kg, which is more than a ton. (And the battery also has a limited life of charge-discharge cycles, before it must be replaced.)

There are promises of fuel cells, improved batteries, and other technologies. They have been promises for a long time, unfortunately.

Other vehicle fuel options are at:

At Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 12:56:00 AM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The Tesla Roadster's battery weighs 450kg and carries a vehicle with a curb weight of about 1250kg 220 miles. A 40 MPG diesel engine would take 5.5 gallons to accomplish this, or 700kg according to your theory. The actual performace specs make this car more comparible to a ferarri that gets approx 15 mpg (14.6 gallons of diesel or 1870kg, roughly 4 times your weight requirements. This car, although expensive, is not a theory. It is a physical reality with 9 production vehicles on U.S. roads and counting. The magic behind this occurance is efficiency. For example the VW Jetta goes approx .53km/MJ vs 2.18 km/MJ for the Roadster. There are a number of electric cars already in production all over the world with the numbers growing rapidly. Your number 110 watt-hours/kg was dead on btw. Oh and one more quick note, there are a number of lab tested batteries (like lithium sulfer) that have efficiencies of 150-400wh/kg. These are still emerging technologies, but hey we didn't always have li-ion batteries. We can discuss the rapidly approaching cost competitiveness of li-ion in another comment if you'd like.

At Friday, August 1, 2008 at 3:42:00 AM PDT, Blogger Steve W said...

Hey guys, I think all this debate about the size of battery required to drive agricultural machinery is a little off the main issue here. Lets suppose for now that the technology exists, or can be created, that will enable machinery to be driven from electric batteries.

The real issue for me is cost and logistics, not technology. Try to imagine the countless thousands of diesel machines currently out there working farms every day. What we are asking is that every farmer throughout the world, over say the next 10 years has to ditch his diesel machinery and go out and buy electric machinery. The problems with that?

Firstly, there is no way that farmers can possibly afford to just ditch all their machinery and go out and buy it all new. Its just not the way farming works. Some of those diesel machines are decades old and held together with bits of wire and duck tape. They don't buy new ones.

Secondly, you would have to convince all these farmers that the electric machinery can do at least as good a job as diesel, which would take a staggering marketing effort. Then you have to convince them that the change is vital to the future of the planet and that each of them must go out and make this huge investment to ensure the future of mankind. Are they going to do that, or are they going to keep using diesel and let someone else worry about the planet's future?

Third problem is that while electric machinery may be made by the odd manufacturer here and there, there is nowhere near enough capacity to replace every machine in the world with an electric equivalent. And manufacturers will not be lining up to start making electric machines until farmers are demanding them.

Fourth problem is that electric machines need charging regularly. How do we charge them? We plug them into the mains. Where does the vast majority of our mains electricity come from? Fossil fuels. Oh shit! Now we've got all these electric machines to keep agriculture going, there's no mains electricity to charge them because the oil has run out and the alternative energy sources are not available in nearly enough quantity to produce what we need.

Yes you guessed it, I'm a doomer. I don't disagree that the technology is there to do absolutely anything we want to do, but is it there in the quantities we need to replace oil in a very short time span (10-20 years)? No way.

At Tuesday, September 9, 2008 at 8:30:00 PM PDT, Blogger Bernd Riechelmann said...

Doomers and Illusionists:
One way to deal with the scare of Peak Oil is to believe in illusions. Maybe us so-called "Doomers" should be kinder to the "Illusionists" and let them have their pacifiers, like believing in "eletrically powered farm machinery."
(Posted by a graduate electrical and mechanical engineer who grew up on a farm)


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