Electric Tractors are Being Put to Work in Wine Country Vineyards
October 11, 2021
Diesel tractors lined up for harvest recently at Old School Vineyards in Wooden Valley may all be replaced with electric machines one day, just like the zero-emission tractor from Solectrac that sits charging next to the vineyard’s main office. The shiny blue e70N tractor is among seven electric tractors operating at a half-dozen vineyards and farms in Northern California, thanks to a $1 million grant from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to spur zero-emission technology in agriculture. The air district says it may fund more electric tractors in 2022.
The grant gave vineyard and farm owners the opportunity to buy zero-emission tractors at a deep discount from two companies: Solectrac and Monarch Tractor. The air district awarded a $480,000 grant to Monarch Tractor and a $514,688 grant to Solectrac, a division of Ideanomics, the air district announced in July.
“I want to give [farmers] the tools to make it easier to grow food but I want them to be able to do it in a way that doesn’t destroy the planet,” said Solectrac founder Steve Heckeroth as he showed the e70N at Old School Vineyards. “Growing food is one of the highest callings that anybody can do.”
Santa Rosa-based Solectrac also produces an eUtility tractor and distributes an electric tractor from India known as the Compact Electric Tractor, or CET.
Under the terms of the grant from the air district, companies paid 20 percent of the cost of zero-emission tractors such as the $75,000 e70N. Old School Vineyards, a 320-acre vineyard, and Arroyo Lindo Vineyard, an 82-acre vineyard in the Russian Valley AVA, each acquired a Solectrac e70N. The Mushroom Farm in Pescadero purchased one e70N as well an eUtility tractor, Heckeroth said.
“We decided to participate in this program because we'd love to see electric tractors as a viable option in vineyards, as a way to ultimately cut down on greenhouse gas emissions when the source of the electricity can be non-polluting, such as with solar power,” said Michelle Riddle, director of vineyard operations for Old School Vineyards and Arroyo Lindo Vineyard. “Our hope is that we are getting in on the ground floor and that we'll be able to employ electric tractors in our operations. They are cleaner and quieter than diesel tractors, and they should ultimately contribute to a decrease in CO2 emissions.”
The e70N looks like any other modern diesel tractor—lights, steering wheel and all. They run for up to eight hours on Lithium iron phosphate batteries which Heckeroth said should be charged overnight. The weight of the batteries—about 1,000 pounds—also contribute to give tractors better traction in the fields.
Since this summer, vineyard crews have stated to collect data on the effectiveness of the zero-emissions tractors and emissions from diesel tractors running on the various properties.
Solectrac Looks to Expand
A team of engineers has been hired to move the e70N, now a prototype, to full commercial production. The plan is to produce 50 e70N next year, Heckeroth said. The pandemic, which has upended the global-supply chain, has made the development of the tractor particularly challenging. Production has been delayed by about seven months, he added.
The tractors’ frames, which are manufactured in India, have to be shipped to Texas and New York because California’s ports have been inaccessible, Heckeroth said. The tractors are then transported to Santa Rosa, where the crews install the electronics.
It has been a long journey for Heckeroth, an architect who started his career designing passive solar houses in the 1970s in an effort to fight climate change. He’s also designed furniture and electric cars and developed thin-film solar roofing material.
Over the last three decades Heckeroth built various models of electric tractors at his farm in Mendocino County, perfecting the designs as battery technology improved.
He worked for seven years for the late Stanford “Stan” Ovshinsky, a prolific inventor, whose legacy included the nickel-metal hydride battery, a longer lasting battery than the lead-acid battery. “He was the most amazing guy,” said Heckeroth, who commuted to Michigan while he worked for Ovshinsky.
In 2012, Heckeroth received a $500,000 grant from the U.S.-India Science and Technology Endowment Fund to develop an electric tractor with a partner in India who supplied transmissions while the tractors were built on Heckeroth’s farm in Mendocino County.
However, the cost of the batteries still made his tractors unaffordable to most farmers. An electric tractor cost $35,000 while a diesel tractor cost $20,000, he said.
“So, I started looking around at different markets that could afford the higher first costs,” Heckeroth said. “And I found vineyards.” Grape growers were willing to pay more for a tractor, he said, noting the industry also sought to have sustainable vineyards.
Eventually, Heckeroth developed the e70N. The eUtility is designed for small farms. It is a two-wheel drive tractor which has no power steering, Heckeroth said. The e70N, a 4-wheel drive tractor designed with power steering, was designed to perform the same tasks as diesel tractors in the vineyards. It is a relatively narrow tractor because it was built to travel between rows.
In June, Ideanomics, a publicly-traded company, fully acquired Solectrac, the company Heckeroth founded in 2012. In July, Ideanomics appointed Mani Iyer chief executive officer of Solectrac with the goal of scaling the electric tractors’ production and distribution.
Heckeroth is now Solectrac’s chief innovation officer and chairman of the board. This has allowed him to focus on design, he said.