Zero Emissions Tractors - A Reality Check
Here is my take on what the investment decision reality looks like for the Net Zero Farmers who want to go zero emissions on farm.
As a green climate concerned farmer, you feel the need to respond to the growing clamour to do more to minimise your farms carbon footprint, so after attending a regen field day or two and signing up to a 25 year carbon farming contract you look around for other things to show how sustainable you are.
For a while you considered trading the Prado for a Tesla, but you are worried what the locals would think, so with a big crop coming and with it a big tax bill, you start to investigate the options of buying an electric or hydrogen powered tractor.
Google tells you both JCB and Manitou offer electric telehandlers and Volvo have a nice 5 tonne electric front end loader, as for tractors Fendt have a 100kw machine which looks the goods.
As for replacing your big four wheel drive tractor, John Deere have announced a new 300kw electric 4WD which is fully autonomous, the only problem is it needs to be permanently hooked up to the electricity network via a long extension cord as it has no battery, so that’s a non-starter.
But, you find a video of a John Deere 400hp battery electric tractor which they claim can last for 4 hrs at full (silent) roar the only problem is the videos are dated 2017 and the machine never hit the market, probably something to do with the battery life being about 20 hours too short.
The accountant tells you the size of your looming tax problem, so you decide you can’t afford not to reduce your tax bill and at the same time do your bit for climate change, so you settle on the Fente e100 to tow the field bin plus the L25 Volvo Front End Loader.
But before you sign the cheque you want to know how you are going to recharge the batteries, as it makes no sense to drag a diesel gen set into the paddock for the overnight charge when you are planning going green.
But you are also not going to run the tractors back to the shed each night to plug in, so you might have to settle for just the Volvo Front End Loader as that never goes too far from the sheds.
Now assuming state and federal Labor holds strong on their mad bans on all things nuclear (except of course for subs and medicine) and they win the next few elections with promises to continue with their dislike of fracking and their disdain for coal, all the while retaining their love for expensive renewables, then our progressive green farmer who lives at the end of the Western Power line might find they have very unreliable power to recharge their new electric loader.
Fortunately, there is a solution at hand called Stand Alone Power Units (STPUs), which are off grid solar, battery diesel power systems.
The Government has recently signed off on moving the first 1000 of 10,000 farming properties across to SAPUs over the next 5 years with the aim of winding up of the entire original rural SEC network by 2030.
Which means that within a decade there will be no farm power grid to plug your electric tractors into.
So the e tractor buyers will be left alone to rechange their batteries utilising their $295,000 SAPU which is designed for a single farm house, a shearing shed and the workshop.
Sounds a lot of money for an off grid battery pack with a few solar panels plus a backup diesel gen set, but as expensive as it is, it’s not going to be anywhere near enough to recharge your new electric Hilux let alone a growing collection of electric tractors, cars and utes, which is what the sustainable industry demands of us.
A full fleer of e equipment would require a battery system 10 x the size and 10 x more expensive, than what Western Power is rolling out, hence their glossy pamphlets are quietly ignoring your future needs, preferring to promote a reliable solution to replace their unreliable system.
So, having researched all this you have decided to stay clear of buying the electric loader and instead turn to check out the options for a hydrogen powered tractor, which would no doubt please the Minister for Hydrogen immensely.
Fortunately, New Holland has just announced they can sell you a T5 140 kw tractor fitted at an optional cost of $100,000 with a dual fuel system including the 11kg of Hydrogen tanks.
Or you can buy the hydrogen powered electric EOX tractor an interesting new design by Dutch farmers which has no engine just electric motors.
One mixes hydrogen with diesel to power a diesel engine while the other uses hydrogen mixed with oxygen to create an electric charge via a fuel cell to directly run the electric motors.
Only problem is like with the electric tractors there is the minor issue of the infrastructure to get the hydrogen to you on farm.
To start with you won’t be driving into your local service station or town depo for a refill as Australia currently only has two public hydrogen refuelling stations, one in Melbourne and one in Canberra.
So even the clean green soy latte types that have purchased one of the two hydrogen cars that are available the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo both costing $100k each have a problem, they can’t get their owners to Noosa for their annual eco retreat.
More hydrogen service stations are planned but they come at a price around the $2m mark to install which adds up when there are over 6500 service stations across Australia, note how the zero emissions lobby never burden us with the extra costs of all the infrastructure required for a net zero world.
Anyway, that won’t solve your problem as you would have to unhitch the tractor and drive it into town every time you needed a refill.
You could always install a solar driven hydrogen production plant on your farm like the $3.1m pilot unit in Brisbane which has a 220kw electrolyser to break down water and a 100kw solar array to power it, but it can only produce 50kg of renewable hydrogen per day, just about enough to get your new tractor through to lunch time.
The other option is to truck it in like your house LPG gas bottles, but hydrogen presents the disadvantage of needing relatively large volume tanks because of its low density.
For instance, to substitute the quantity of diesel fuel that is stored in a 70 L tank would require 11,720 L of compressed hydrogen which means you need to really compress it down under huge pressure to get the tank sizes down.
Compressed hydrogen is not just flammable it is dangerously flammable, think of the Hindenburg disaster, you need lots of steel around the tanks to keep them safe when transporting on road, which is why the 5kg tanks (the size of a normal petrol tank) in cars are built to be bullet proof.
On a typical flat top semi you would get just four 10m long cylindrical tanks inside of a big safety frame which will weigh around 12000kg, of that it will only contain 880kg of H when pressurised to 700 bar.
A recent U.S. report 2020 DOE Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Program Review found that a single 220kg pressure tank would cost US $76, 851 to build. Four in a steel safety structure would bring the total cost including the safety frame and trailer to US$422,688.
Just think how many we would need to replace all the fuel trucks and farm tanks that we have across the state.
This is where the new renewable economy with all the promised jobs comes from, replacing perfectly functional energy systems, including all your old trucks and tractors and tanks with new.
Good if you can afford it not so good if you can’t, no doubt that’s where they get you with carbon taxes.
And this is before you start playing for all the hydrogen you need to run the tractors.
The problem with hydrogen is the expense that comes with cracking it off water or gas then storing it, which requires either compressing it as a gas with big pumps (powered by diesel, gas or coal?) or by (weakly) bonding it to something else like ammonia and storing it as a liquid then converting it back to a gas.
By the time that’s all done the amount of energy invested in the process often exceeds what can be gotten back out by a wide margin, but who’s counting certainly not the enthusiastic Ministers in government who claim green hydrogen is the solution to global warming and new job creation.
When all the costs of the energy conversions are added up, “mining” hydrogen from water for use in a zero-carbon energy system has almost always been a massive money-losing business which is why the glossy brochures the state government and Twiggy are putting out on the huge opportunities of hydrogen include no costings. Neither do they talk about the carbon taxes needed to force you to change your cars and machinery over to zero emissions.
"Renewable hydrogen presents a big opportunity for industries right across WA to reduce their emissions and embrace a cleaner future, and our funding commitment to demand stimulation will help companies take that leap.”
So promises the Minister for Hydrogen’s Press Release in September.
No mention of the cost of the hydrogen or the transportation issues with moving it around.
Now assuming Twiggy, no doubt with the help of millions of dollars of taxpayer’s money comes good with his plan for green hydrogen produced from solar and wind in the Pilbara, then the question is at what price will he charge for his good deeds.
A quick search on the internet and you can find government projections that the farm gate price of green hydrogen will be around $3kg by 2030, which stretches credibility when its being currently sold at prices closer to $20kg today.
Governments can fix this by simply putting a big carbon tax on your diesel and urea thereby doubling the price to $3lt for diesel and $2000 a tonne for urea and suddenly sustainable energy and fertiliser are cheaper than dirty diesel and urea.
But unfortunately you won’t be getting any more for your wheat as the international buyers mostly don’t care how green your wheat is. Just look how big the organic section is in your supermarket to see how the big talk on sustainable food fails to translate into a sustainable high priced market.
But let’s just assume magical efficiencies are found and the price does come down closer to the price of diesel at $1.50lt, the next question is exactly how much bang do you get for your buck with a Kg of hydrogen.
Hydrogen has an energy density of 120 Mj/kg, whereas diesel is only 45.4 Mj/kg which sounds great until you run it via a fuel cell to power a tractor via direct drive electric motors.
This two-step conversion process whittles the energy comparison ratio down closer to 1 :1.
Which means 1lt of diesel equals around 1 kg of hydrogen when comparing running a 100kw diesel tractor vs a 100kw electric tractor.
Do the maths at $1.50 for diesel vs hydrogen at $20 or $10, $5 or even the predicted $3kg and suddenly going green is starting to sound a very expensive proposition, that is until they put a carbon tax on diesel (did I mention that).
You do have the option of mixing it with diesel in the combustion chamber and it will provide a faster and more efficient burn, but it’s a $100,000 conversion on the New Holland and it only reduces the emissions by 10 to 30% with only a small 5 – 15% fuel efficiency improvement (depending on load) which is offset by the cost of the hydrogen not to mention the 30% more you paid for the tractor.
Just how much hydrogen would you need to run your tractor?
Well, the New Holland tractor stores 11.5kg hydrogen in its tanks which are the size of 2 x 200lt drums. The diesel/hydrogen fuel mix is around 30% at full load so at 3 x the energy of diesel 11.5 x 3 = 34.5lt (equivalent) which when mixed with 90 lt of diesel gives you 120 lt of fuel enough for 4 hrs work. If you refuel 5 times a day you will need 57kg per day. If you use a fuel cell tractor with electric motors its about 10 times the amount so 570kg for your 100kw tractor.
570kg at $3 vs 570lt at $3 or will it be at $5, or $10 or $20 my guess is diesel will be cheaper for years to come, but green hydrogen won’t get anywhere near $1.50kg .
So, assuming you still want to save the planet and your focus is going pure green then you still need some way to get the hydrogen delivered on farm.
The Minister for Hydrogen could talk to the Minister for Regional Development and reallocate the Royalties for Regions fund into building a massive pipeline network across the wheatbelt, maybe even following the Western Power easements as they roll up the rural power network.
Remember that’s the power network that could carry green electrons to recharge your green tractor. The more you look the crazier the future becomes.
No government is going to build a hydrogen pipeline network to the wheatbelt so it will need to be trucked out and by the time you hire a $600,000 trailer as your fuel cart its going to cost a bomb.
Not to mention the interest of a whole range of regulatory agencies who will be watching to ensure your hydrogen does not explode like a bomb, so expect regular visits by work safe plus others, it again it will cost you way more than $3kg.
In my research nowhere could I find a paper covering what a farm based hydrogen fuel storage system would look like, or the costs of supplying and building a whole supply chain to match what we currently have with diesel, or even the issues with recharging farm tractors on farm.
So, here is a worthy project for the Minister for Hydrogen to jointly do with the Minister for Regional Development and while at it review the predicted price of Green Urea made from hydrogen, my guess is $1000 tonne will be looking cheap.
Now I am no industrial chemist or economist so no doubt there are holes in my workings above, but I seriously doubt there is any real hope in the near future that farmers will be moving to buy electric or hydrogen powered tractors despite all the state and federal governments hype on the merits of wind, solar and hydrogen and the 2050 net zero nirvana that awaits us all.
So, my advice to the farmer who wants to do more, maybe just buy that Tesla while your Western Power line still exists.