Electrifying agriculture

With the echoes of COP 26 still ringing in our ears, the issue of net zero emissions remains a huge driver – albeit strewn with uncertainties – for the agri-food sector. And how to power the farms of the future given the pressure to reduce reliance on fossil fuels is leading to some innovative thinking, including the role of on-farm electrification.

Government investment With the Government investing £80m in “Driving the Electric Revolution” a recent report published by UKRI has drawn on expertise by leading figures in the agri-food industry, including a number of our members (AHDB, University of Lincoln, Small Robot Company and Harper Adams University), to consider the potential for electrification of the sector. The widespread panic-buying of fuel in October 2021 in the UK also demonstrated a new phenomenon of “fuel anxiety” – with Auto-Trader magazine reporting a 60 % increase in searches for electric vehicles.

On-farm infrastructure needed But what does this mean for the agri-food industry which is traditionally powered by fossil fuels and for which there are currently limited alternative options? Many smaller devices are farms are already battery operated – using long-life batteries to power sensors, alongside solar and wind power, along with heat pumps starting to become more common place. The inflection point is how to get this thinking scaled up to the major user of fossil fuels – farm machinery such as tractors – for which alternatives are still being sought.

High capacity battery storage and on-farm infrastructure are key to enabling an electric future to be embraced – and they need to perform at least as well as existing solutions with which farmers are more familiar. And we are still a way from that being a reality. And it’s not just about the powering of the vehicle – electric drives are needed to replace engines and hydraulics – leading to a new industry of so-called PEMD – “Power Electronics, Machines and Drives” which enable not just the delivery but also the control of electrical energy.

Engines of innovation And it’s not just about the powering of the vehicle – electric drives are needed to replace engines and hydraulics – leading to a new industry of so-called PEMD – “Power Electronics, Machines and Drives” which enable not just the delivery but also the control of electrical energy. There are some electric tractors on the market, worries about range, the time taken to charge and, of course, cost remains a major barrier to adoption. Innovations in other sectors, however, are offering hope for a faster change in agriculture. The UKRI report cites the marine and automotive industries as being engines (pun totally intended) of innovation around electrification, and “business-to-consumer” businesses such as Dyson and Bosch being well-placed to deliver low-carbon ag-facing innovations for electrification. As with so many new technologies, the public sector has a key role to play by deploying its various fiscal and policy levers – such as providing subsidies for development and adoption, offering grants to support new infrastructure such as charging points, as well as increasing awareness of the opportunities, and encouraging technical global standards to which the industry can work.

As we know, if agriculture is to embrace and achieve net zero, we need to look to other industries to help. As the old African proverb goes – “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

Hopefully using renewable energy …

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