The German government appears to have dropped a much-debated idea of cutting diesel subsidies for farmers for now, but the question of what climate-friendly alternatives there are for tractors and other agricultural machinery remains...
After lengthy negotiations with liberal Finance Minister Christian Lindner over spending and savings in the agricultural budget, Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir made a controversial proposal in late July: the agricultural diesel subsidy should be abolished to free up financial resources for other projects.
Currently, farmers can get the energy tax on fuel used in agriculture and forestry partially refunded through the scheme – a subsidy that is harmful to the climate, Özdemir argued.
Özdemir’s proposal provoked a fierce backlash from both the liberal FDP and the conservative CDU/CSU, as well as from the agricultural sector, and appears to be off the table when it comes to the 2024 budget.
Nevertheless, the issue could return to the agenda in future budget negotiations, and so the question of the subsidy’s climate impact remains. A key factor will be the extent to which farms even have options for cutting out diesel for heavy agricultural machinery.
Alternatives to diesel power for tractors and agricultural machinery are already available, according to Udo Hemmerling, Secretary General of the German Farmers’ Association (DBV).
“Tractors and other agricultural machinery powered by vegetable oil, biodiesel, biomethane, bio-LNG [liquified natural gas] or electricity have in many cases been developed to the point where they are ready for use,” he said.
However, he explained, adoption of these technologies has been slow, mainly due to cost. “For example, biofuels are often more expensive than fossil diesel,” according to Hemmerling.
Are electric tractors the future?
At the same time, opinions differ on which alternative is the most promising.
“Wherever it is possible to electrify at a reasonable cost, this makes the most sense,” according to Sofie Defour of the NGO Transport & Environment (T&E).
Indeed, machine manufacturers are already offering the first electric alternatives, but hurdles remain.
Financially, the initial cost of an electric tractor is much higher than that of a conventional one, explained Defour. However, once the electric machine has been purchased, it is cheaper to run, due to the much lower cost of electricity compared to diesel.
But to make up for the higher purchasing price by saving on fuel, vehicles must travel long distances, Defour added. For a truck that travels long distances daily, electrification therefore pays off more quickly than for a tractor that stays on a farm’s premises.
On a technical level, too, challenges remain.
“For agricultural machinery, all-electric drives currently only make sense in the lower power classes,” explained Peter Pickel of agricultural engineering manufacturer John Deere.
In contrast to the automotive industry, for example, the electrification of agricultural machinery is currently only possible to a limited extent, he added.
“Battery-powered concepts for medium and large tractors are currently not feasible because the power density of the batteries is too low,” says Pickel. In other words: To power heavy machinery, batteries would be too large and heavy.
What about biofuels?
On the manufacturing side, solutions are also being explored, according to Pickel. One example is the partial electrification of tractors, which can also drive trailed machines such as slurry tankers.
Pickel is convinced that “because they are easier to regulate and control, electric drives will become increasingly popular on the path to even greater precision”.
However, the farmers’ association is less convinced that it will be possible to electrify all agricultural machinery in the future.
“In agriculture, especially for heavy fieldwork, it will not be possible to do without the combustion engine and thus without biofuels,” said Hemmerling.
But how climate-friendly biofuels really are is a matter of debate.
“We don’t see biofuels as sustainable because there is not enough biomass to put it into transport,” T&E’s Defour said.
In contrast, according to André Paula Santos of the European Biodiesel Board (EBB), biodiesel is “indeed a great option to decarbonise agricultural machinery” and rapidly reduce the sector’s greenhouse gas footprint.
“This is especially true since that type of machinery can accept higher blends of biodiesel into diesel than road vehicles,” he added.
John Deere’s Pickel also believes the use of biofuels for agricultural machinery makes sense, but only as a “bridging technology” until electrification is possible on a large scale.
By Julia Dahm, Reporter, Agrifood