Many see future in abundant fuel
Generated on the farm or piped in, it may be cheaper, cleaner than diesel
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Higher fuel costs have squeezed farmers' profits in recent years, countering stronger crop prices.
Meanwhile, the federal government has been imposing stricter emissions standards that are only expected to get tighter in the future.
Plentiful quantities of cheap, clean-burning natural gas may help alleviate both problems -- particularly since growers have the potential to generate their own supplies of the fuel from farm waste.
"It absolutely makes sense if they produce their own biogas," said Manfred Pfleger, product marketing manager for the Case IH machinery company.
Many farms in Europe are already using anaerobic digesters to produce natural gas from dairy manure and other byproducts, but the fuel is commonly burned for electricity, Pfleger said.
Such biogas can be cleansed of impurities to run in natural gas engines, which may seem more attractive after the European Union implements tougher emission regulations in 2014, he said.
One of the company's brands, Steyr, has developed a natural-gas-powered tractor with total emissions 80 percent lower than a comparable diesel-powered machine.
The Steyr Profi 4135 tractor is also about half as loud as a diesel tractor and can reduce fuel costs by 40 percent, Pfleger said. "Gas is quite an efficient energy source."
Despite the advantages, the tractor has a drawback -- the volume of compressed natural gas is about five times greater than diesel, making storage a headache.
Steyr has tried to resolve the problem by dividing fuel storage across nine tanks that have been strategically placed to avoid hindering the tractor's function.
Even so, a fully-fueled Profi 4135 will operate only half a day before running out of fuel, compared to a full day for a comparably sized diesel tractor, Pfleger said. "We need to invest a bit more time to find a better way to store the gas."
That's one of the main issues Steyr hopes to resolve before the tractor's scheduled market launch in 2015. Until then, farmers will be testing how it performs out in the field.
"It's one thing to implement the technical solution," Pfleger said. "It's another to make sure it runs on a daily basis on the farm."
In the U.S., natural gas is an appealing fuel source independent of the prospects of on-farm biogas production. Over the past decade, a new drilling technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has greatly increased the amount of recoverable natural gas in North America while driving down its price, said Valerie Wood, president of the Energy Solutions natural gas analysis company.
"I think it's a lot bigger than anybody thought it was going to be," she said.
Compressed natural gas has consistently been less expensive than diesel in recent years -- at about $2.09 per gallon of gas equivalent, CNG was about 45 percent cheaper than diesel, according to the latest data from the U.S. Energy Department.
Engines that run on natural gas are not the realm of science fiction.
Vehicles powered by the fuel are being introduced in the U.S. and are already common in Italy, Brazil and Argentina, said Steve Rogak, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of British Columbia who studies natural gas engines.
"It's definitely commercial," he said. "The technology is pretty well developed."
Apart from Case IH, though, other major equipment manufacturers contacted by Capital Press were coy about the prospects for natural gas in farm machinery.
An executive for AGCO, the parent company of several brands, said the company has "developed our own solutions for biofuels and biogas" and is researching other alternative technologies, but he did not go into specifics in an e-mail.
Caterpillar, which makes natural gas engines, said the company can't comment on adapting the technology to farm machinery, but "it's not something our current ag customers have necessarily requested," according to a spokeswoman.
A spokesman for Deere & Co. said the company currently isn't preparing natural-gas-powered equipment for the market because it's "focused on diesel."
Even so, tougher emissions standards are a top-of-mind concern for farm machinery companies, said Charlie O'Brien, agriculture sector leader for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.
Between 2011 and 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is phasing in rules that will reduce emissions of certain pollutants from off-road machinery by more than 90 percent.
"They're certainly not going to go in the other direction," O'Brien said.
Given the aggressive targets of regulators in the U.S. and Europe, manufacturers will have to react fairly rapidly, he said. Natural gas could be one solution.
"It wouldn't surprise me to see the manufacturers respond to that with these unique approaches on a longer-term basis," O'Brien said.
Adam Fleck, a farm machinery industry analyst at the Morningstar investment research firm, said the possibility of lowering fuel expenses would be a major advantage for natural gas.
"It's worth thinking about," he said. "Innovation happens by thinking outside the box."
Though theoretically exciting, the adoption of natural-gas-powered farm machinery faces serious practical challenges, Fleck said.
For one, agricultural mechanics have long been accustomed to diesel engines, so any drastic change would be met with concern, he said. "You'd have to retrain dealers, retrain farmers."
Distribution chains for diesel are also well entrenched in rural areas compared to natural gas, Fleck said. "That distribution would have to be built up."
For the near future, natural gas is more likely to be adopted as a fuel by fleets of trucks, buses and cabs in big urban areas, said Richard Kolodziej, president of the Natural Gas Vehicles for America trade group.
"We can't be everything to everybody immediately," he said. "We're growing, but we're growing in hubs."
The U.S. currently has about 1,000 stations that cater to natural gas vehicles, compared to about 150,000 gasoline stations, Kolodziej said. As this infrastructure expands, rural areas are unlikely to be an immediate priority.
On-farm biogas production is a "huge opportunity," but it will also encounter economic hurdles, he said.
Digesters would have to produce enough natural gas to justify the added expense of treatment, since using raw biogas isn't an option, Kolodziej said.
"Engines generally cannot run on that," he said. "You have to purify it."
Energy Solutions: www.energysolutionsinc.com
U.S. Department of Energy: www.afdc.energy.gov
Association of Equipment Manufacturers: www.aem.org
Natural Gas Vehicles for America: www.ngvc.org
NPK Fertilizer Advisory Service: www.npkfas.com