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Oregon farmers can test out electric ag vehicles with rideshare program

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Eric Tegethoff

(Oregon New Service) Efforts to electrify transportation in urban areas have been underway for years now, but rural advocates say electric vehicle needs in rural areas have long been misunderstood and ignored.

Now, one organization in the Pacific Northwest is looking to break down the barriers to electric transportation with a new "rideshare" program that brings electric tractors to farmers. 

"Our whole energy system is moving from a centralized grid and centralized power plants to distributed energy, and we're here to ensure that this transformation is equitable and provides benefits to rural communities too," said Bridget Callahan, senior energy program manager at Oregon-based nonprofit Sustainable Northwest. 

Sustainable Northwest, in partnership with ForthWy'East RC&D, and Bonneville Environment Foundation, is leading a "rideshare" program in Oregon that allows farmers to test out electric tractors on their farms. Three Solectrac electric tractors are currently available for farmers to try out, with two more to be added to the fleet next year. Farmers decide with rideshare program managers how long they want to use the tractor, which can be for a period of several months. 

According to Callahan, electric tractors are one way for farmers to avoid the price volatility of fuel. 

Rural Oregonians put nearly twice as many daily miles on their vehicles than the statewide average, according to 2019 research prepared for the Oregon Department of Transportation. For farmers, this mileage can be a lot higher, equaling a much steeper price tag on diesel. 

"Farmers are at the whim of so many external factors that are outside of their control, dealing with climate change, drought, pests, international conflict," Callahan said. "When we talk to farmers, we often hear that energy is one of the few things that they can control."

Shifting to electric agriculture equipment can provide this control for farmers, according to Callahan. "Being able to power your tractor from an outlet in your shop can provide a whole new level of resilience and longevity for the farming community," she said.

Electric tractors can also provide health benefits, according to research from Oregon State University. The minimal sound the machinery creates - a low hum accompanied by the noise of the bearings turning while driving and no noise while idling - is a stark difference from the rumble of diesel-powered tractors. Long-term exposure to this loud rumble is a common cause of hearing loss among farmers, according to research from the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. 

Currently, there are no incentives for electric tractor purchases in Oregon. Sustainable Northwest hopes to change that, and providing a tractor rideshare program free of charge to farmers is just one way they're doing this. 

"We're actively exploring whether Oregon's Clean Fuels Program could be expanded to include electric tractors, and of course, there are the traditional tax credits or rebate purchases that could be made available as well," Callahan said. 

Only two states in the country provide such incentives: California and Colorado. In California, the CORE voucher program enables businesses and government agencies to obtain vouchers to cover a percentage of the cost of an off-road electric vehicle, including agricultural equipment. In Colorado, businesses can replace their diesel machines with an electric equivalent through the state's Clean Diesel Program

Most of the progress in Oregon has been led by organizations, not legislators. A bill introduced in the Oregon House of Representatives last year would have modified zero-emission and electric vehicle rebate programs to include electric tractor purchases, but no progress has been made in the one year the bill's sat in the House Committee. 

According to a Statesman Journal interview with Salem representative Raquel Moore-Green, there are plans to reintroduce the bill in the 2023 legislative session. 

The move to adopt heavy-duty electric vehicles comes amid the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which provides some incentives for electric vehicle purchases. While equipment like electric tractors is not included in the bill, rural advocates hope it can keep the conversation about electric agriculture equipment front of mind. 

"The Inflation Reduction Act directs agencies to think more about diversifying equipment," Callahan said. "And if we're going to be incentivizing electric transportation, we have to be thinking about what makes sense in rural communities." 

Claire Carlson wrote this article for The Daily Yonder.