Steve Heckeroth had a number of potential buyers for his crawler tractor when the price of gas and diesel was high.

Steve Heckeroth had a number of potential buyers for his crawler tractor when the price of gas and diesel was high.

Alternative-energy enthusiast Steve Heckeroth says the increasing use of electric tractors will depend largely on the economics, even though there are other good reasons to switch from ­fossil fuels.

Heckeroth, who is based in Albion, California, has been making electric vehicles for almost 20 years, motivated by a concern about the depletion of non­renewable energy sources and the pollution caused by their use.

As an architect, Heckeroth focused initially on designing homes that could function entirely on solar energy. He then shifted his focus to transportation, which he says uses four times as much energy as housing and causes ten times more air pollution.

Heckeroth formed a company called MendoMotive and, using off-the-shelf golf cart and forklift technology, began converting existing vehicles to electric. He has also made vehicles from scratch.

One of his early projects was the electrification of a fiber glass replica kit of the 1955 Porsche Spyder. The car did 0 to 60 miles per hour in eight seconds, had a top speed of 130 mph, and had a range of 120 miles at a moderate speed. More recently, he developed a solar-charged electric crawler for vineyards called the SolTrac.

Over the years, battery technologies have improved, increasing the range of electric vehicles and reducing the recharging times. But interest in electric tractors has ebbed and flowed in line with gasoline or diesel prices. When diesel cost $5 a gallon a couple of years ago, he had a number of orders. When the price dropped to $2, ­interest waned.

People are much less likely to make changes because of environmental concerns than because of costs, he concludes. Even growers committed to sustainability are influenced primarily by the economics.

“I am totally convinced that the only driver that’s going to make a change is price,” he said. “My experience is that everybody’s got to be concerned about the bottom line first, and if they don’t have the money to try something new, they’re not going to do it. But I think we’re getting to the point where people are realizing that the cost of gas is not going to go down dramatically.”

Today, the United States imports more than 60 percent of the oil it uses, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which amounts to around 13 million barrels a day. The economic recession has helped keep the price of gasoline relatively low because of reduced demand, but Heckeroth expects prices to rise again as demand for the world’s finite supply of oil increases. Worldwide production of oil peaked four years ago, according to the Energy Watch Group, but China and India, with their large ­populations and robust economies, are consuming oil in increasing quantities.

Scale up

Heckeroth believes the way to stimulate more use of electric tractors is to scale up production and reduce the selling price so the economics are more favorable. He’s found investors to form a company so he can build production rapidly and hopes to have models available before the 2011 growing season. He’s arranged to have financing available for purchasers, just like the major tractor manufacturers do. Typically, growers are not charged up front, but pay after ­harvest when they have the money.

“Now that I’ve got someone who’s going to handle the financing for the electronic tractors, there’s really no reason why a small farmer wouldn’t want the electric over diesel,” he said.

Heckeroth estimates that fuel costs for a solar-recharged electric G tractor over the next 25 years would total $6,000, compared with $150,000 for a tractor with a combustion engine. The electric tractor would emit a trace of carbon dioxide over that period, compared with 210 tons from a diesel tractor.

Model G

He patterns the body of his new electric Model G tractor after the old Allis-Chalmers G, which can accommodate the electric motor and battery at the rear. The additional weight of the lead batteries, which weigh 600 pounds each, is helpful on a farm tractor because it provides more traction. The body is 40 inches wide, and the total outside width, including the wheels, is 48 inches.

He uses lead acid batteries, primarily because lithium batteries are too expensive. A lithium battery costs about $14,000, plus another $2,000 for a battery management system. Lead batteries cost about $1,000, and the tractor requires three to have the same performance as a lithium battery. Heckeroth has applied for a patent for his exchangeable batteries system. When one runs out, it is exchanged with another battery that’s been charged up.

For light-duty work, such as hauling things in an orchard, one battery would probably last all day, Heckeroth said. The tractor has a 20-horsepower motor and a separate power-take-off motor that is also 20 horsepower, so that it could replace a 40-horsepower gas engine or a 30-horsepower diesel engine. A power inverter can be used to convert the direct current to alternating current to power tools ­wherever the tractor goes.

Heckeroth has solar panels on his tractor shed to generate power to recharge his tractors. He has a time-of-use net meter, which allows him to sell the power he generates during peak-use times to the utility company for 30 cents per kilowatt hour. He recharges most of his vehicles at night at a cost of 7 cents per kilowatt hour.

Electric tractors are not new. Soon after the turn of the twentieth century, in the early days of the automobile, there were more electric vehicles than gas vehicles. It was because of the electric starter motor, which replaced the hand crank, that ­gasoline-powered vehicles became more popular.

In the 1960s and 1970s, General Electric made the Elec-Trak tractor, which was built mainly with golf cart components. It was reliable, quiet, and emitted no fumes, and popular with the people who bought it. However, it was relatively expensive, and as the oil crisis of the 1970s subsided, so did interest in the Elec-Trak.

Now, however, people are trying to find Elec-Trak tractors to restore them, and it’s practically become a cultlike activity, said Ron ­Johnston-Rodriguez with the Port of Chelan County in Wenatchee,  Washington.