For an analogy on the advancement of battery-powered machinery, Dennis St. George turns to car racing.
Formula E is an all-electric car racing league formally known as the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship. Its first season began in 2014.
Better battery technology will eventually find its way into farm equipment.
Its cars bear great resemblance to the low, Batmobile-esque Formula 1 racer, but (based on YouTube videos) their engines whine like Star Wars’ TIE fighters. The cars are a little slower than their conventionally powered counterparts — topping out at 174 m.p.h. instead of 230 m.p.h., according to a Forbes article from 2019.
St. George is an agricultural engineer and principal of SANDGEO, which provides development services around sustainable technology.
During ManSEA’s (Manitoba Sustainable Energy Association) virtual conference on April 6, St. George told his audience that its inaugural season, ‘Gen 1’ Formula E cars had an output of 200 kilowatts and had to be swapped out mid-race before their batteries died.
The second generation of Formula E cars have an output of 250 kilowatts and could last the entire 45-minute race. ‘Gen 3’ cars, still in development, will have an output of 350 kilowatts and can also last the full race.
This seems analogous to the possibilities for battery-powered machines on farms, said St. George. There’s been a lot of investment and working going into batteries, he said. Battery management software is becoming more sophisticated. Price is going down while availability goes up.
And equipment manufacturers are going electric, St. George said.
“It’s primarily from performance characteristics. It’s getting better performance, better power, better load distribution,” he said.
As autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence progress in farm equipment, electric drives makes more and more sense, St. George added. It’s easier for a computer to drive an electric engine than a diesel one.
“This is going to be a game changer now because once you go to an electric drive then the question is, ‘Well, what are you using to power that drive with?’”
Renewable energy can fit in nicely, St. George said.
Formula E uses generators that run on glycerin, which its website says is a byproduct of biodiesel production. St. George said he’s not aware of glycerin being used in other sectors like agriculture.
“I believe it will be moreso a niche fuel source in the future,” St. George told the Co-operator. “Biodiesel hasn’t taken off, partially due to the cost of commodities like canola being higher than fossil fuel equivalents or emerging alternatives as waste biomass resources to useful energy. The glycerin supply is ultimately tied to the biodiesel supply.
“The firm energy capacity of the renewable energy source has to match the effective field capacity of the farm equipment,” said St. George. Some renewable sources can produce a lot of power over a long time, but with agricultural producers are often packing a lot of use into a short time.
Batteries could be charged by renewable grid-supplied power, said St. George. However, in some cases grid service isn’t very strong in rural areas. Farmers might be limited to small tractors or limited use time.
St. George said he’s been focusing on farm-generated, renewable electric power from sustainable biomass — ideally the biomass produced on the farm.
“In terms of closing the loop, I see it as the ultimate for the farm,” he said.
SANDGEO is involved in a project related to bringing biomass-fuelled, energy-producing technology to Canada, but the project is still in its early stages.